Category Archives: Hex Crawl

Prepping and Running Games Saves Money

I have found that in the last few weeks as I prepare a Metamorphosis Alpha scenario to run at UCon, play test it online with two different groups, and end up with a weekly Saturday game and bi-weekly Sunday game, I don’t have as much time to read and browse forums and find more goodies to spend my money.

This is good. I’m not broke, and I’m not poor, I just prefer to pay cash for things, and I already have multiple game systems to choose from. Both the books and manuals I have, and many different PDFs. While I like collecting lots of different ideas for tables and how others do things, in the end, if all one does is collect bits and bobs and never runs a game, what’s the point? {I’m also going to attend ConOnTheCob in October, UCon in November, the company holiday party is in Orlando, FL in December – I finally get to go to Disney World!, Marmalade Dog in February, GaryCon in March, etc.]

Other than helping out the creators when I buy things, if I’m not running at least one game of one of the rules I already have, I’m not doing the one thing I have written so often that I want to do.

I struggle with having “enough” prepared to be comfortable. the key for me is determining what is the right “enough” to have. It doesn’t matter the game system.

By jumping in and running Metamorphosis Alpha and having a regular commitment to keep running it, my outlook has changed. The task seems much less daunting, and the myriad of excuses of why I’m not ready yet fade away.

My in person AD&D campaign with my oldest son and his girlfriend faded away when they moved in with me in the months before my granddaughter was born. Preparations for parenthood, and figuring out their new family dynamics have put that on the back burner. Thus the desire to move that campaign online and get it going that way. Starting up with a new group of people do not guarantee they would make the same choices and check out the same things as my face to face players. Once I get a bit more done with my MA online game(s), I will do more to get my AD&D game going online.

This doesn’t mean no preparation, and no ideas for suggestions for players, etc. There needs to be enough of a framework that it holds together. What this looks like will change and adapt, or it should, once players start interacting with the world. I have lots of ideas, but it is what the players do with my descriptions and starting conditions that is interesting. Watching players interact with the world I have presented and seeing them debate and struggle over courses of action, or regret actions taken, just makes the whole thing come alive. This is cooperative play/storytelling at its finest!

So I have dug in and started using all the pads, pens, dice, books, and miscellaneous notes I have gathered. The results are encouraging, and I find that I want more! I have enough ideas to keep things rolling, and the players have their own ideas, so I don’t see burnout with roleplaying as an issue. Burnout is only a threat based on how crazy busy work gets in December and January. [Oh the “joys” of being a support analyst for payroll and accounting software at year end/W-2 time, plus a new set of forms this year for the ACA.]

I don’t plan on participating in NaNoWriMo this year. I still need to write the last few chapters of my novel, so I can start on the second draft/revisions. I know I can do it, since I have over 60,000 words that I wrote last year in November. It’s just a matter of sitting down and doing the work. Like most things in life, the ad slogan, “Just Do It.” fits so well.

I have a lot of different irons in the fire, and without the distraction of all the different TV shows I watched last Fall, Winter, and Spring, I have gotten more done. It’s all about priorities, and making a decision to act on them, and following through.

Well, that’s enough stream of consciousness for now. I think I’ve convinced myself that I can do the running of games online, and that I can handle as much as I want to handle, with all the irons I have elected to have in so many fires. I can save up shows to binge watch on long weekends, or not worry about them at all. I can put as much effort into game preparation as I want, but choose to focus only on preparation that makes the most sense and has the best chance of being used in play. I can also deal with various projects around my 95 year old house, as well as down-sizing a bunch of non-gaming stuff. I like the idea of a simple life and being able to live out of a van. But I’d need most of a semi-trailer right now. My goal is to go through all my stuff and pare it down now, so in X years, when I’m gone, my sons won’t have to deal with it. I like my stuff, but gadgets and things become obsolete or lose their appeal.

NOTE: I wrote this late at night, and made one pass at it, and it shows in all my rambling and additional topics. I’m not going to go back and fix it. My point is in here. Find it if you can. LOL!

P.S. Don’t forget to talk like a pirate today, ye scurvy dogs!

The Graveyard At Lus – Review

+Jason Paul McCartan, AKA The Badger, and editor/layout guru for White Star, has a new supplement for it – The Graveyard at Lus, just $4.99.

This interesting supplement is a way to generate an area of space that is a spaceship graveyard due to combat.

Developing the graveyard can be as simple as rolling up opposing forces and determining winners, etc. and which ships were left behind, due to being disabled or destroyed.

Degrees of damage and destruction can be determined and potential survivors or the presence of other scavengers, or the arrival of various others.

This booklet reads like the combat ended not long ago, and looters, rescue teams and others are just now showing up. It is a trivial matter to come up with an age of the graveyard, resent or years, decades, centuries, millenia, or eons old.

What I liked:

  • If you buy the PDF and want the POD, when it is available, the cost of the PDF is knocked off the top!
  • I like this idea. It is a simple plug and play add on that the GM can use in whole or in part. Ideas and options are presented that I had not thought of, and I like that!
    • I like things that get me to coming up with my own ideas.
  • He presents two options for combat, cinematic and realistic, depending on how much time you have or how much crunch you want in it. This idea of a mini game is quite interesting. (For example, I could get out my copy of Imperium and use the chits for ships to keep track of it all.)
  • I assume by app he means something for a cellphone or tablet, and not a webapp, but that isn’t clear. An app to do all this generation is in the works.
  • New races, new creatures, and some tweaks to existing races from White Star.
  • This idea of a ship graveyard could easily be applied to an aquatic navy, or even a battlefield. This would cross genres from ancient to modern, from steam punk to fantasy.
  • The final section is running the scenario to build the Graveyard at Lus for your own use. The reader is walked through how to do it.

What I didn’t like:

  • A few typos, grammar, spelling errors and an awkward sentence that slowed me down while I figured it out. I am sure if I put something like this together I would have the same issue. A reminder for us all to get another set of eyes on these things. I probably didn’t catch all of them in this post.
  • I can’t think of anything else I didn’t like, other than, I wish I’d thought of this!
  • I don’t have time to step through this right now.

What I’d like to see:

  • A few pages of the collected tables in one place with reference back to the page numbers of details. There are several steps involved in this method, and having all the tables in one location would speed things up.
    • It is easy enough withe the PDF to make your own collected tables.
  • A page or two in the PDF with chits with his proposed ship outlines that we could print out. I’d be good with just outlines that I could color in by hand, since I don’t use a color printer. Those who can afford colored ink may want them in full color.
  • Why is there a graveyard here? War, border skirmish, race to control a resource, such as a strategic planet, alien artifact, natural jump gate, etc.
  • Other reasons for there to be a graveyard besides combat. Ancient technology, mysterious space anomaly, etc.

I can see using this at my table for more than just White Star.



The Map Is Not The World

I posted a review about two different published books of hex paper the other day. I shared the post on the RPG Blog Alliance Community, and had this comment: “But then those hexes put an artificial constraint on mapping. First map, then grid.”
I started a reply, and it just got longer and longer, so I decided it made more sense to make a post out of it.
I’ve had the title for this post for several weeks, and was gong to write about it anyway, this just seems to fit.
Each DM must do what works best for them, when it comes to mapping. If making a map and then adding hexes, squares, or whatever it is you use, works for you, great!

There are two kinds of maps – those for the player and those for the DM.

As DM I need the hexes as I plot where things are to gauge accurate distances, etc. I already have maps, the one drawn by my brother, the artist, after he saw my original map 25+ years ago, and was like, “Just, no….:. He drew it on hex paper. He chose not to see the hexes when he drew it.

The other(s) are a collection of maps I put together from zooming in, and I changed my interpretation of the original map. I goofed and need to get one consolidated map to fix stuff I was just dealing with mentally during play. That only works with the player’s in my in-person game. For my start up of an online version of the game with the same starting point as the original players, I need to fix it.

For players, I can draw it however I want, and scale and accuracy don’t matter. (Unless it’s a science fiction or modern setting where technology and accurate maps are easily available.) The players just need an idea of how things relate to each other.

For games, there are two styles of maps, accurate and properly scaled and artful maps. Some have the talent to do both at the same time on the same piece of paper/computer interface.

I don’t want to do the map in Hexographer, for example, and then give it to players, they can guess where the hexes are, and learn things before they encounter them.

My chicken scratches on hex paper is so that I know at a glance what is where. It is a tool for use in play. For hex crawl style play, this is needed. I have always played the hex crawl style, we just didn’t call it that back then. We just called it play.
The player’s won’t see this map.

My player’s will only have maps that are available to the people of my world. They also have to be able to find the maps, and try to get a peek, or beg, borrow, or steal them. I am thinking of maps in the style of ancient and medieval maps.

Maps of large scale with close to the accuracy of modern maps did not happen until accurate clocks allowed tracking and plotting position. If you have seen maps that exaggerate how big Florida is, you will get my point. It changed size drastically as more accurate measurement of time and distance occurred.

Such maps give one an impression of the world that can have interesting repercussions if you follow them literally.

Even modern maps, such as flat projections of the entire planet skew the size of Greenland, and other places, to a ridiculous degree. One has to use a very creative representation on a flat surface to get size, coastline, and distances accurate. The best way to represent a planet is with a globe. Even then, the kind with relief that indicates mountains and valleys does not have an accurate representation. I have heard people say, and read it somewhere, that if the Earth were the size of a bowling ball it would be smoother than a bowling ball. Also a bowling ball scaled up to the size of Earth would have ridiculously high mountains and deep valleys.

No matter how we try to map, we don’t have a way, that I know of, to allow a person to see a representation of the whole planet, that is accurate in all aspects and allows one to see the entire surface as with a flat map.

Unless our fantasy world is flat, we can’t make an accurate map.

We have two choices, spend a lot of time doing the math and adjustments necessary to account for distances as one moves North or South, or just fudge it.

I tend to be a detail oriented guy, but the level of calculation needed to do that and make it perfect takes a lot of time that I could be putting into more maps or other game preparation.

Even a science fiction or modern setting for an RPG with accurate map making technology and easily available copies, it is easier to hand wave certain things. If a planet hopping science fiction RPG, I won’t map every inch of a globe, if there is a known location the players are seeking. If they do a different planet for each adventure, I’m not mapping a planet and placing all the cities and towns, and then not using them again. I may not make a map to share with the players, but just have a description of the atmosphere, continents, climate zones, and tech level. If I couldn’t find an online generator, I would build a script(s) to quickly spit this out for me, or just roll like a madman, like it was back in the day.

Some people can spit out maps a lot quicker than I can. For me, it is a challenge to make them not all look alike, especially dungeons. I explain some sameness as a cultural thing of the builders. Does anyone design a dungeon and then add the grid? I don’t know of anyone back in the day who did it that way. We all grabbed the graph paper we could find, whether 4 or 5 hexes to the inch. My group favored 5 squares to the inch. I use both sizes now. My aging eyes have  a preference for the slightly larger 4 squares to the inch.

No matter what form of map we use to represent a solar system, planet, continent, country, city, village, dungeon, tomb, etc. It is not an accurate representation. Using the grid of squares or hexes to make an accurate plot, it only a two dimensional representation, height it missing. With no grid and whether hand drawn and scanned and further manipulated or drawn directly to computer via mouse or stylus and tablet, and made into a thing of beauty, neither is an accurate representation. Each only gives some of the information that is further conveyed by our descriptions of what our players see.

With theater of the mind, we can use a few apt descriptions and make those of us with less than fantastic map skills allow each player to construct the world in their own mind.

If we could generate directly from the mind what each of us “sees” for a certain world, I suspect that there would be very few parts of them match up exactly.

There is also another aspect to mapping. Use at the table for one’s own group, and publishing a product, be it a module, or a setting. For just a playable item, I can easily do it myself. For a map in a published product, I would either spend the time to get really good at making maps, or I would hire someone to do it.

The audience for the map tells a lot about the requirements for the map. I can have a few scribbles on paper, and I can run a game. If I want to take that idea and attempt to market it, I have to put a LOT more into it.

For me to take my world, or one of the adventures of my players, and make a publishable product out of it that stands a chance of selling, will take a lot of development to make happen. The few notes one can use to DM with quickly grows if one starts writing out what must be known to let someone else DM the same scenario. Even all that extra work to let others into my world, in  whole, or in part, cannot begin to capture the way I see it in my mind. There was an infamous Kickstarter for a megadungeon that, from what I have read online, illustrates this point. What works for the creator to run his creation, is often insufficient for another to pick up and do the same.

Hex Paper For Mapping

Finding a good and affordable source for hex paper for mapping is a challenge. I am old school because I still have a few of the TSR hex paper sheets that I won’t use, because I can’t easily get more. One package served my brother, Robert and I well for many years, but I need more to do the kind of mapping I want to do.

I can scan the folded sheets and print out, or go to a copy store and make more expensive copies.

To add to my collection of pads of graph paper, I ordered two softcover books of hex paper, one with .5 inch hexes, and the other with .25 inch hexes.

Hexagonal Graph Paper
Hexagonal Graph Paper – What a crappy picture? I should fire my photographer…. Oh, wait, that’s me.

The .5 inch hexes are a book called Hexagonal Graph Paper, by Paul Fleury, c. 2014. It has 100 pages, i.e. 50 double-sided sheets. There is an approximate half inch border all the way around. The lines are dark/bold black. This makes them show up well, and they would be clear if a map were colored with colored pencils, and perhaps felt tip pens. The printing on both sides of the page are lined up, so there is no offset hexes when held up to the light.

The one drawback is that the pages are not perforated. Separating the sheets risks tearing the part of the page you want to keep. You could get an X-acto knife to cut out each sheet, or cut off the edge with the glue and separate all the pages. However, that would defeat the handy package of having it all in a book.

Since the hexes are such dark lines, I don’t know how easy it would be to clean them up/remove them if a map was scanned for use online.

Technical Sketchbook
Technical Sketchbook

The other book of hex paper is Technical Sketchbook: Hexagonal Graph Paper 1/4 Inch by Joe Dolan, c. 2010. It does not say how many pages, but I guess it is 100 since it is the same thickness of the other book I did buy this knowing from Amazon reviews that there is an imperfection on every page on the right side of the page. One hex has a stray diagonal line in it. Due to the lightness of the ink, it is hard to catch at a glance, but is easy to find if you look for it.

The ink is more of a light gray, so heavy coloring could obscure the hexes. Scanning might not pick up the hexes. There is about a half inch of border along the top and bottom, but the sides is about a quarter inch. The margin on the right side widens, and the one on the left side narrows as you advance through the book. Unlike the other book of half inch hexes, this one has a border around the hexes that “cuts off” the hexes on the edge. There is also a line across the top of each page. I suppose it is there for a place to write a title for each page.

Just like the other book, the pages are not perforated. The shrinking inside margin makes removal even more tricky than the other. The hexes are “jagged”. That is, the lines look somewhat like they were printed with a dot matrix printer. These stippled lines are rough/pixelated on the diagonals of the hexes. Scanning would exacerbate this, for the parts of the lines it might pick up.

From just looking at the sheets in each book, I think they will be fine for drawing maps. If the idea is to use maps at the table, they will get fingerprints, oil and sweat from fingers, drips and spills from drinks, crumbs from food, etc. If you are looking for fancy paper to do award winning art, these are probably not for you. If you are looking for a not too expensive source for hex paper for making maps that you will use, these will do.

From my experience with hex map making from back in the day, the 1/4 inch hexes are good for the general idea of what is in an area on a large scale map. The 1/2 inch hexes are good for the greater detail when zoomed into the local area, for 5 or 6 mile hexes, or perhaps smaller.

Once I start making some maps with them, I will scan some samples and post in a future article.

Checklist For Gearing Up For An Online Campaign

I keep fiddling around here and there with ideas for getting my real life AD&D campaign world in shape and organized to run as a successful online campaign.

The last few weeks I have realized that I do more talking/blogging about getting ready than getting ready. I collect neat ideas that I want to remember that I want to have ready for possible use in my campaign. Rather than just talk and haphazard idea collecting, I have resolved to actually do it.

To make sure that my actual preparation is on track, I will make a checklist of things to do and principles to guide my efforts. Since these are things I feel I need to do for me to run an online campaign, I through that I would share the list, in case others find it helpful. Better yet, you might have suggestions that I can use.

My list should be generic enough that even though I mention some specifics of AD&D/OSRIC, it can easily be modified for any genre. I also have interest in running campaigns for Metamorphosis Alpha and White Star, so the same steps, except there is no preexisting campaign to draw from, would apply. Finding the time to run one online campaign, let alone make preparations to do three won’t happen overnight. I could do one shots or once a month sessions for the other potential campaigns. I will get the AD&D/OSRIC campaign off the ground and running before starting another one.

First, what are the principles/guidelines for my online campaign.

RULES/GENRE: First Edition AD&D/OSRIC Fantasy with house rules, If players don’t have access to the Player’s Handbook, point them to the PDF and available print options for OSRIC.

STYLE: Sandbox & Theater of The Mind

TECHNOLOGY: Go with what I know and have experience.

  • Roll 20 & Google Hangouts for play. (Free option, can pay to avoid ads.)
  • A G+ Community to gather campaign information. (free)
  • A Google drive location for shared documents.  (free)

CAMPAIGN: My existing campaign with the clock rolled back to the starting point of the in-person players. This gives me all the ideas I have already used and avoids having to re-stock all the locations that were cleared out. It also allows me to incorporate things that happened in prior play, especially polishing off the rough edges and filling in gaps that prior play revealed.

An added benefit of this is that all the work I do in preparation for an online campaign and actual play will add something to the in person campaign.

Second, the to do list needed to get ready. Remember the KISS method!

  1. New DM map. My existing hand drawn map sections don’t line up right, and I just fudged it at the table. The PDF’s I found online with a section with hexes and an area to make notes were not quite right the way I filled them out.
    1. Note on all maps – they don’t have to be fantastic works of art, just good enough to get the point across.
  2. Player’s Map. I haven’t worried too much about a player’s map in live play. I do have a rough map of the town where they have made their base. If the players online want to buy a map, I will need something in electronic format to give them. I will need the town map in electronic format.
  3. Campaign Introduction. Short document to give a sense of the world and the current situation in the campaign the characters will enter.
    1. Have a TL;DR section at the top with bullet points.
    2. Race and Class specific notes. For example, magic users & illusionists would have knowledge of certain things that other classes would not know. There is a campaign situation reason that a starting player can’t be a half-orc in my game.
  4. House Rules Document. Make it clear how I do things and what rules I use, don’t use, ignore, add, modify, etc.
    1. Have a TL;DR section at the top with bullet points.
    2. For example, I don’t hold to the level limits.  I also don’t use weapon speed.
    3. I only use the classes in the Player’s Handbook.
    4. Only some mundane items from the Unearthed Arcana, Wilderness Survival Guide, and Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide.
    5. Meta-gaming and out of character outbursts have a way of becoming reality….
    6. Silver standard
      1. Price Sheet with silver standard
    7. XP for session summaries and writing up people and places.
  5. Review campaign notes.
    1. Town – Electronic map, place things that need placing, add businesses and NPC’s as needed.
      1. Both Player & DM version.
    2. Revised area map – Make it match what I envision in my head and not how it ended up on 4 or 5 different sheets of hex/note paper.
        1. Both Player & DM version.
    3. Perhaps a map of the known world that might be available to the players.
    4. NPC’s – Organize list of NPC’s for online play. Add or modify NPC’s as needed.
    5. Add classed NPC’s for every class present in my game to save time. Ideas in my mind need to be written down and clarified.
    6. Add NPC’s for each race present in my game.  Ideas in my mind need to be written down and clarified.
    7. Review existing dungeons, lairs, scenarios, etc. to make them fit my revise area map.
    8. Review encounter tables – Tweak as needed.
    9. Method to track notes and ides generated by player outbursts, fears, ramblings, kidding around, and actual stated goals/desires of players.
      1. This will probably be as simple as a next session note pad. Perhaps even a separate pad or side of the page for future session ideas. A stenographer’s note pad had the line down the middle, so that might be simplest.
    10. Timeline/events – Stick to the major events that were pre-generated or that developed from the live campaign. Modify them as the players interact with the world. It will be possible for player activity to speed up, slow down, or stop pre-generated events.
    11. Make a note of anything that I think of as I go through and organize my notes so I don’t forget anything.
    12. Don’t mention any possibilities to players that I am not prepared to back up with preparation for the players to go in that direction.
    13. Longer list of rumors/rumor table.
    14. Generate more names to be ready to name NPC’s.
    15. Re-use weather events and other happenings.
  6. Configure dice and other macros and documents in Roll 20.
    1. Have a document or links to tips for Roll 20 and how to do macros, etc. in case there are players new to Roll 20.
  7. Write up description, etc. for Roll 20 campaign page.
  8. Build G+ Community for campaign. Description, categories, etc.
  9. Locate a good source of images to use for setting the tone for the site and each adventure. I really like how the DM to my weekly online AD&D game does this.
  10. Invite Players & set time for the campaign to begin.
  11. Schedule Time With Each Player to create a character and a backup character. Determine date and frequency of play. Day of week, and weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, etc.
  12. Prepare a better space for holding he materials – maps, notes, manuals, and a place to roll dice and take notes.
  13. Technical – Get a cable so I can run two monitors.
  14. Last minute stuff prior to first session.
  15. First session.

Any other ideas or suggestions are welcome!


Geographical Descriptions

There are tons of types of geographical features. I ran across a link that uses pictures to group geographical descriptions, but it uses pictures, so there is no easy cut & paste of the text. I have typed up all the descriptions used and put them at the end of this article.

Still, I find Useful Geographical Descriptions For Writers helpful. I saved all the pictures to my computer, in case this link goes dead. I’m a bit of a writer, I have a nearly done first draft of a novel, and DM’s/GM’s are always looking for things to spice up their descriptions. There are some pretty crazy geographical types, like different types of lakes or caves.

When building your world, some fantastic ideas just might be fueled by reality.

Meadows and Grasslands

Steppe – extensive area of treeless grassland with short grasses and less rainfall than a prairie

veld, veldt – steppe with scattered trees and shrubs (especially in Africa

tundra – extensive northern (arctic) treeless plain with mucky soil

sward – green tract of grassland or turf

lea, mead – grassland for grazing or hay

fell – high moor or barren field

moor, moorland – a tract of open, peaty, wasteland, often overgrown with heath, common in high latitudes and altitudes where drainage is poor

barrens – scruby, uncultivated ground, or land along a lagoon covered by high water

heath – an area of open uncultivated land, esp. in Britain, with characteristic vegetation of heather, gorse, and coarse grasses

croft – yard or field used as a household kitchen garden or for a few farm animals

paddock – a small field or enclosure where horses are kept or exercised

boondocks – an uninhabited area with thick natural vegetation, as a backwoods or marsh

Hill, Mountains, and Valleys

knoll, hillock, barrow (British) – small and rounded hill

downs – rolling grassy upland with few trees

plateau – extensive flat-topped land elevation that rises steeply on at least one side

mesa, butte – isolated steep hill or small mountain

pike, peak, summit – top of a mountain

glacial horn, horn of the mountain, pyramidal peak – an angular, sharply-pointed mountain peak which results from the cirque erosion due to multiple glaciers diverging from a central point

aerie, eyrie – elevated place

palisade, palisades – cliff formation or line of cliffs

dell, glen – small and nestled (usually wooded) valley

hollow, combe – deep and narrow valley

vale, dale – valley

scree – rocky debris on a mountain slope

fumarole – volcanic vapor hole

maar – Extinct volcano crater often containing a lake or marsh

Trees and Bushes

bower, bowery – leafy tree-enclosed nook or recess (also the nest of a bowerbird)

arbor – a leafy, shady recess formed by tree branches, usually manmade

grove – small group of grouping of trees (usually without undergrowth

weald – wooded or uncultivated country

timberland – land covered with timber-producing forests

thicket – cluster of shrubs or small trees

bosk (adj. bosky) – a small wood or thicket, especially of bushes

copse, grove – grove or thicket of small trees

coppice – a thicket or dense growth of small trees or bushes, esp. one regularly trimmed back to stumps so that a continual supply of small poles and firewood is obtained; copse

underbrush, undergrowth – shrubs, saplings, low vines, etc., growing under the large trees in a wood or forest

canebrake – thicket of cane

deciduous – describing a tree or forest with foliage that falls off annually

bough – a branch of a tree, especially of the larger or main branches

hinterland – the remote parts of a country, or back country

Deserts and Miscellaneous

sand dunes, dunes – a mound or ridge of sand or other loose sediment formed by the wind, esp. on the sea coast of in a desert

playa – an area of flat, dried-up land, esp. a desert basin from which water evaporates quickly

arroyo – a dry desert gully

hogback – an eroded, steeply tilted ridge of resistant rocks with equal slopes on the sides

hoodoo – a column or pillar of bizarre shape caused by differential erosion on rocks of different hardness

chaparral – vegetation consisting chiefly of tangled shrubs and thorny bushes

karst – landscape underlain by limestone that has been eroded by dissolution, producing ridges, towers, fissures, sinkholes, and other characteristic land forms

salt flats, salt pans – flat expanses of ground covered with salt and other minerals, usually shining white under the sun

oasis, watering hole, spring – a fertile spot in a desert where water is found

seep – a place where petroleum or water oozes slowly out of the ground

tar pit – a hollow in which natural tar [asphalt] accumulates by seepage

Rivers, Oceans, and Wetlands

Watersmeet – junction of two rivers

headwaters – river’s upper tributaries

ford – shallow area of water that can be waded across

levee – a ridge of sediment deposited naturally alongside o river by overflowing water, or an embankment built to prevent the overflow of a river

delta – river mouth’s often fan-shaped sedimentary plain

estuary, frith – sea’s juncture with a river’s mouth

strait – connecting passage between two large bodies of water

riverain – pertaining to or like a riverbank

sandspit – small jutting of sand or gravel at water’s edge

lagoon – shallow pond near a body of water

tarn – small mountain lake with steep banks

millpond – a pond for supplying water to drive a mill wheel

loch – a lake or partially landlocked or protected bay

mere – (British) a lake or pond

sluice, sluiceway – an artificial channel for conducting water, often fitted with a gate (sluice gate) at the upper end for regulating the flow

narrows, straits, channel – a narrow channel connecting two larger areas of water

gulf – extensive sea inlet

fjord – sea inlet that is narrow and has steep sides or cliffs

cay, key – low coral island or visible reef

atoll – ring-like coral island or reef surrounding a lagoon

shingle – pebbled or stony beach

shoal – shallow place in a sea or river

eddy – small whirlpool

bog, fen – tract of low and wet spongy ground

tideland – low land subject to flood tides

tide flat – flat and usually muddy tideland

bracken – rough or marshy tract of land with one kind of vegetation (shrubs or ferns)

swale – moist low-lying land (usually pineland)

causeway – raised path or road across water or a marsh

cape – land formation jutting into the sea or other large body of water

headland,promontory – elevated land area juttying over the sea or other large body of water

floe – sheet of floating ice

hoarfrost, hoar – frost (Middle-English)

rime, rime ice – an opaque coating of tiny, white, granular ice particles most commonly seen on tree branches

snowdrift, snowbank – a mound or bank of snow driven together by the wind

permafrost – (in arctic or subarctic regions) perennially frozen subsoil

sleet – ice pellets created by the freezing of rain as it falls (distinguished from hail)

Caves, Cliffs, and Rocks

grotto, cavern, hollow – underground or rock-walled chamber

stalactite, dripstone – icicle-like formation hanging in a cave

stalagmite – icicle-like formation on the floor of a cave

flowstone – rock deposited as a thin sheet by precipitation from flowing water

bluff, precipice – a cliff, headland, or hill with a broad, steep face

crag – a steep, rugged rock; rough, broken, projecting part of a rock

scarp – a line of cliffs formed by the faulting or fracturing of the earth’s crust; an escarpment

rocky outcrop – part of a rock formation or mineral vein that appears at the surface of the earth

bedrock – unbroken solid rock, overlaid in most places by soil or rock fragments

rubble – broken bits and pieces of rock, through demolition, quarry, or natural processes

scree – a steep mass of detritus (or rubble) on the side of a mountain

slag – coal waste or waste obtained from smelting ore

gulch, gully – a deep narrow ravine, a ditch or gutter

gorge – a narrow cleft with steep, rocky walls, especially one through which a stream runs.

crevasse – a fissure or deep cleft in the earth’s surface.

stack – a steep and often vertical column or columns of rock in the sear near a coast, formed by erosion

stone run – rock landform resulting from the erosion of particular rock varieties caused by myriad freezing-thawing cycles

inselberg, monadnock, kopje (Dutch), bornhardt – an isolated rock hill, knob, ridge, or small mountain that rises abruptly from a gently sloping or virtually level surrounding plain

promontory, headland (over water) – prominent mass of land that overlooks lower-lying land or a body of water

cenote – a natural pit, or sinkhole resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath

tor – a large, free-standing residual mass (rocky outcrop) that rises abruptly from the surrounding smooth and gentle slopes of a rounded hill summit or ridge crest

Railroad vs. Sandbox – The Timeline

Railroading players by forcing them to do what the DM wants is a bad thing. However, there is a “railroad” that runs through sandbox style play that should be acceptable and welcomed.

The timeline.

What I mean is, the DM comes up with plots, situations, rumors, etc. and puts certain things on the campaign calendar, things that WILL happen – barring intervention by the PC’s or others.

For example, the sun comes up every day, unless something changes that.

The DM comes up with a situation and puts it on the calendar/timeline of the campaign. That “something major” event will happen unless something stops it. This major event could be good or bad.

An example of a good event is a diplomatic marriage that will end decades of tragic war. This event will happen barring outside intervention. A powerful wizard may like that this war keeps these two nations too busy to stop her consolidation of power among groups of humanoids. The end of hostilities means that she will have to use her time and other resources to stop their meddling instead of putting it towards her own goals. Thus it makes sense that this major NPC would hire an assassin to keep her own involvement in the background. Perhaps the PC’s have not discovered the existence of this “big bad.”

The DM assigns a chance that the assassination will succeed or fail. The DM determines through a roll or through choice that the assassination will succeed unless someone finds out about it.

It is up to the DM whether or not the PC’s ever find evidence of any plot. If the evidence is put into the campaign, what if the PC’s NEVER find it? This is NOT a problem. If the PC’s don’t know about something, they can’t do anything about it. The assassination goes through and then the PC’s are tasked with getting to the bottom of it. If the assassin gets away without leaving a trail, what do they do? If they would rather go fight giants, or seek out a dragon, let them.

If the PC’s happen to have done something that merits their presence at the wedding, maybe then they get wind of something, and have a chance to change the course of the timeline. However, it should not be a requirement that the PC’s even know about this. If the “big bad” has the resources to hire the best assassin, how likely is this person to make a mistake? There is a chance, and the DM should decide if there is a chance of failure, or how exactly they want to play it.

If the PC’s are nowhere near the scene, i.e. they are across the world, or in a dungeon, or otherwise unavailable for the event, it goes down as pre-determined.

In my mind, this is the only thing that some might consider a “railroad” that is permitted.

However, it is still possible that through the actions of the PC’s the original assassin might be met in another situation before then. If they take out this assassin, then the next best assassin must be assigned to the task, and their chance of success or failure is likewise determined.

Perhaps, the PC’s decide to go investigate something that leads them to discover the big bad and interrupt her plot.

I have played in many games and GM’d several with all kinds of options presented to players. The players ALWAYS manage to find some significance where the GM may not have intended it to be. This is OK. The players sense that something is important and it opens up a whole new something to be explored, be it a plot, dungeon, monster, etc.

The calendar or timeline for the campaign is the schedule and not the railroad. Just as something can delay a train, tracks out, accidents, fuel shortage, robbery, etc., many things can delay or redirect the events of the campaign timeline. In some places, the train never runs on the times stated on the schedule.

For my campaign, I determine a year or two worth of events. I like the idea in the AD&D Oriental Adventures for determining the event for each year and for each month in the year. Some events, like a flood or earthquake may be nearly impossible for the PC’s to stop. Other events, like an invasion, might be something that can be stopped or delayed, or prepared for, if the players find out about it and can get word to the right people.

Having a campaign timeline with nearly inevitable events planned is not a railroad. A railroad would be forcing the players to do something about them. What if the players don’t see their involvement as required or important? What if they see some other plot or action in the world as more important?

An example from my campaign is a wedding between the ruler of the town that is the home base for the players, and the king’s niece. The players had just found a magic sword and shield that I expected them to use. Instead, they had their own plans. They want to get in good with the powers that be for their own ambitions. So they make a present of this sword and shield to the Baron, and because there is some well-known lore associated with them, they get invited to the wedding and later reception/party, where they get to meet the princess, the king, and several other powerful people.

My plan was that the wedding happened and they might get a glimpse of the king and retinue when they came into town and for the procession to and from the temple for the wedding, and perhaps again when they left. How many players just give up a magic weapon and armor, KNOWING that they are magical?

I never saw their actions coming, so I had to improvise a wedding ceremony and party and have other NPCs generated on the fly.

The players were much more excited to have met the king and queen, and gotten in the good graces of the baron, who is now married to the king’s niece. Yes, the magic items were cool, but the roleplaying and the player driven goals were so much more fun and interesting than I could ever come up with on my own.

It is like the twist ending of a book or movie that is handled so well that you don’t see it coming and are rewarded by getting the full effect due to the finesse with which it was presented. If you have ever seen a movie, or read a book with a big twist at the end that is predictable and not well presented, it leaves one feeling uneasy and disappointed. A railroad that forces the players to go where, when, and how the DM wants them to go is like the poorly executed twist, totally unsatisfying.

A timeline or calendar is not a railroad, just a schedule of possible future events in the course of the game. The players don’t know about this schedule, and only learn of events as they happen, or if they happen to be in the right place at the right time to learn of them before they happen. Even if players know that something is up, they have the power to decide if that something is important enough to figure out what it is, and if they should do anything about it.

For example, suppose the players learn of an assassination plot to disrupt the wedding? What if they just get word to the appropriate authorities about this, and the location or timing of the wedding changes? That alone might be all that it takes to foil the plot. Or it might force the big bad to come out of hiding and get involved personally to make things go her way.

As I have said elsewhere, if the DM/GM has a story to tell, they should write the story, instead of forcing the players to do something in-game that does not interest them.

White Box Omnibus – A Review

I won a copy of White Box Omnibus, by +James Spahn of Barrel Rider Games on the Happy Jacks Podcast for Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day.

Things have kept me busy since then. After White Star came out and I reviewed it, I figured I better hurry up and read through the Omnibus and do my promised review.

James’ own introduction to the text explains it well:

White Box Omnibus is a compilation of six previously published
products: White Box Companion, White Box Bestiary, White Box TreasuresWhite Box Adventures: The Wererat’s Well, White Box Adventures: The Wizard’s Tower and White Box Adventures: The Dragon’s Hoard. But a few extras have been added. In addition to cleaning things up a bit, there are a few new things you’ll find.

The Monk has been added as a player character class. It is written in the spirit of Arneson’s Supplement II, but streamlined to fit WhiteBox. You’ll find simple, easy to implement rules for introducing powerful magical artifacts into your campaign along with new monsters in the bestiary.

The three adventures featured in White Box Omnibus have now been augmented by an appendix – The Willow Valley Gazetteer. It’s a mini-campaign setting which can be used to tie the three adventures together, or even continue having adventures in that region.

Section 1 – Class options  Contains variations on standard classes that give bonuses in one area, but limitations in another. Such as the “sub-class” of cleric, the healer, who can use a healing touch once per day but has a -1 on to hit rolls.

Bard Class – This is a simple class designed to work within Swords & Wizardry and other D&D clones, instead of the kludge of AD&D.

Druid Class – A version of a cleric with a Forestry ability that allows tracking, passing without trace, or dealing with wild animals.

Monk Class – Similar to the class in AD&D, with house rules suggestions to make it more like the AD&D monk.

Paladin Class – With the exception of leaving out the warhorse, this is the paladin we recognize.

Ranger Class – With the Forestry ability, like the Druid.

Thief Class – Single skill called Thievery using a 1d6 mechanic based on level. This covers all the thief skills in a big separate table in AD&D. There is a house rule for climbing that add a bonus to the roll.

Section 2 Magic Items – A list of very interesting armor and shields.
potions, scrolls, rings, staves, wands, weapons, and three pages dedicated to miscellaneous magic items. The miscellaneous items has a house rule about “purposed magic items”, i.e. Artifacts.

Section 3 – Bestiary – This includes many creatures that are well-known from other versions of OD&D & AD&D.

For example, Brain Lord – Squid headed humanoids p. 39-40.

Section 4 – Adventure – Wererat’s Well 15 pages including the introductory illustration and map by Matt Jackson.

Section 5 – Adventure – The Wizard’s Tower – 20 pages including the introductory illustration and map by Dyson Logos.

Section 6 – Adventure – The Dragon’s Hoard – 18 pages including the introductory illustration and map by Matt Jackson.

Appendix – The Willow Valley Gazetteer – 22 pages including the village map by Matt Jackson, and an area map done in Hexographer. There is a d20 rumor table for the village and a couple of pages on communities of halflings, dwarves, and elves. This mini-campaign setting has a detailed village, and the area map ties it all together into the three adventures and several of the new creatures and items.

I am a big fan of AD&D. Mostly because it is what I knew and played for so long. I am growing to be a major fan of simple. Less rules and less “fiddly bits” that get in the way.

This large collection of material that supplements Swords & Wizardry White Box to give it many of the things I like about AD&D, or supplemental material from the later LBB’s. It also streamlines them and makes them easy to use, like the bard. In AD&D, the bard class is a mess. I don’t know anyone who started as a fighter, changed to a thief prior to getting the benefits of a 9th level fighter, etc.

The simple bard class presented here, plus the simplified single skill abilities for druids, rangers, and thieves make it easy to avoid paper shuffling and digging through the manual.

The magic items are new and interesting. They have given me many ideas.

I also like how James separates out ideas for house rules in grey highlighted text.

The simplicity of what is presented here is also modular, so that one can pick and choose what you want to use, and easily house rule things that you feel are missing or “not your way of doing things.”

I only skimmed the three adventures. They are clearly presented and to the point. There is enough detail to help out the DM and enough openness to easily supplement the material or drop it in to an existing campaign.

The gazetteer is a village with a map of the village and an area map that ties the three adventures together with the setting. This could easily be the start of one’s own sandbox campaign, or be dropped in as a new area to explore. It is a good model of one way to build a sandbox.

The layout is well done and the whole thing is easy on the eyes and easy to read on a screen.

Just as with the recent White Star, I recommend the White Box Omnibus!

Campaign Design

Back in mid-March +Sophia Brandt posted a query seeking advice on tools for beginner DM resources for hexcrawls and building your own campaign.

I recommend reading the full comment thread, but I liked what I wrote, as it is a nice summary of what I have used in my efforts in recent years. I have added other links and information that I could not recall off the top of my head, mostly for my future reference.

+Joe Johnston recently published a free PDF, How to Hexcrawl.

Bat in the AtticThe Alexandrian, Ars Ludi, and  The Welsh Piper all have a series on sandboxes and hexcrawls.There’s another blogger who did something on hexcrawls that I am not recalling.

Bat in the Attic- Hexcrawl Series            The Alexandrian Hexcrawl Series               Ars Ludi: West Marches            The Welsh Piper on Hexcrawls

For building a world, the hexcrawl is generally a bottom up way to do it. Pick a starting town and generate a few hexes around town with various terrain, and objects and places of interests and dungeons and monsters. The world is built as the player’s explore it.

One can also do the top down approach, plan out a world, cosmology, mythos, nations, peoples, cities, etc. and pick a certain spot for the players to start, and use a hexcrawl to detain a smaller area.

For me, designing a detailed mythology of divinities is a challenge, so I use either Greyhawk dieties, or something from Dieties & Demigods.

It is easy to get lost in the details, so I think the DSR episode about world building sufficiency, is right on point. Some of us, like me, can easily get lost in details that will never come into play. Build enough to give color and flavor to your world.

My quick suggestions:

  • Decide which monsters definitely will or won’t be used.
  • Generate a ridiculous amount of names for streets, places, businesses, taverns, and NPCs . (You will be asked for what is the name of this or that all the time!)
  • Stay just enough ahead of the players that you can roll with their sudden course changes. At the end of a session ask if they will continue in their current situation, or go somewhere else, to give you time to prepare for a course change.
  • Make index cards with pre-generated random encounters of the creatures they are likely to encounter, so you can just grab it and go. Just make packs based on your encounter tables, whether it is the default tables in the rules, those by others, or your own. I put stats, treasure, etc. on them so I don’t have to slow play to figure it out. Some monsters I use all the time, I can easily wing them. But I like the cards to make sure that every group of goblins is not the same 10 goblins with spears.
  • Once you get a few sessions under your belt, and you and the players get attuned to this world, it will start to make sense how to proceed.
  • If this is your first campaign, there is no right or wrong way to do it. Everything you do, even if it is never used in play will help you figure out what style of world building works for you.
  • Tables – Tables can help give ideas. The OSR is full of new ideas for tables to flesh out or fill in perceived gaps for different tables. You don’t have to roll on tables or accept the results, but they can give a LOT of ideas you might not come up with on your own.
  • Maps – There is a plethora of online maps for RPGs for dungeons, cities, ruins, and other settings. If you play using theater of the mind, then the maps may only help you to solidify your ideas for a location and its layout.
  • d30 Sandbox Companion – New Big Dragon Games game aid for generating all kinds of things for a sandbox setting.
  • d30 DM Companion – New Big Dragon Games game aid for ideas for fleshing out dungeons, not limited to the dungeon.
  • Weather  – Have a quick and easy method to generate weather.
  • Rumors – Have a few rumors to start and come up with new rumors all the time.
  • Events – Use something like the yearly and monthly events in Oriental Adventures.
  • Festivals & Celebrations – What kinds of parties will be going on?

Another person pointed out a couple of resources that I also turn to:

Jeff Rients’ twenty quick questions for your campaign setting has some interesting ideas to define certain elements of your campaign that your players may ask about, or for some reason tends to come out in game play.

One Page Dungeon Contest (OPDC) Maps to quickly generate where a treasure or other found map leads, or for a quick adventure idea when you are running dry.

I find that as I place monster lairs and determine what is in them, that it is easy to make up a story to explain how they all fit together. Are certain groups of humanoids working together? Is there a big bad who is trying to get them to work for him? Are there monsters that can’t be reasoned with or controlled and the big bad leaves them to guard his flanks, and his minions fear them. For example, a group of owlbears in an abandoned mine?

There are all kinds of ways to determine what the various lairs and ruins are. Place them underground in caves, tombs, dungeons, ruins, mines, quarries, etc. Hills, towers, and other prominent features above ground.

Use the lairs closest to the starting village/town/city as sources to begin interacting with your world. Have a known area of fairly picked over tombs in the hills near town, but with the possibility that there are still tombs that haven’t been found, or that have become the home of something else with treasure.

Plan NPCs for all the PCs to interact with, that have the same classes your PCs will use. If you allow paladins and rangers in your game, plan some low and mid-level NPCs so that your players have someone of their class to turn to for advice, training, support, etc. Having a reason for these NPCs to be in and out of town and sometimes inconvenient for the players to interact with makes them a bit more real. Paladins and rangers tend to be out doing good in dangerous places, or on quests and secret missions. Wizards and illusionists and sages tend to get busy doing their research. If the players can’t afford to pay for information or magical aid, perhaps they can pay in favors.

Then there need to be the other NPCs, tavern keepers, bar maids, street vendors, and other types of vendors that your players will tend to seek out. How many from the starting location will be available for hirelings and mercenaries? Is the supply never ending, or will you define how many are available? Will the players have a hard time finding help if they get a reputation for getting their men killed?

As you get to know your developing setting and your chosen rules, you may find that you are comfortable winging various aspects of play. Perhaps all you need is a list of names or a simple name generator, and some generic stats of hirelings. I have found that I can make up all kinds of stuff on the fly. I am amazed at some of the stuff that I come up with and how the players never know I made it up on the spot. However, the players can be quite inventive and always manage to find some avenue in the course of play that I had not anticipated.

If you tell the players that there is someone in town who sells maps, for example, you better know about the maps. Are they all forgeries made by the map maker, or are they the real deal. Where do they go and do any forged maps actually lead to something, or is the loot still there if the map is genuine?

Whatever you mention, be prepared for the players to run with it, so keep some basic notes of what you have told them, and pay attention to them showing interest in certain things.

I have a few background plots running in my campaign that are affecting their immediate area, the kingdom, and the greater region. The players are seeing a pattern to some events that are just random encounters, but I am able to retcon a story that makes it work, because I built my own encounter tables to fit the lairs I randomly placed and populated. The players are able to influence events through dumb luck, or by choosing to follow or ignore hints of something else going on. Players will start connecting dots from what they see, but these connections are tenuous, coincidental, or circumstantial. It is fun to have your narrative as the DM about what all this means, and see how the players actually interact with it.

With a hexcrawl, you can put as much or as little detail and effort into it as you need to make it work. You can do the just in time generation a few hours before the session, or do it as you play and both DM and players figure out the world at the same time. You can obsess over planning your world and generate tons of information that will never enter into play. Whichever way you prepare, make sure it is focused on preparations that leads to play first, and explanatory, fill in the blanks later. As I mentioned above, as you follow this process, you will discover the style that works for you. If you and the players are having fun, then you are doing it right.