Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Hexing my pathcrawl - big structure of my jungle game

I've gone on record saying that I like to be surprised by my players. (Idiot) "Go off the edge of the map", I think I said. You'll never guess what happens next!

...that's right, I pull out a binder with tables either written on my own or scraped off of better blogs and roll up their doom, is what happens. Here's how I try to add spice and variety to the trip, while keeping my prep work manageable.

My guys are currently exploring the continent of Xen'Drik, Eberron setting. From the world map, Xen'drik is about 5000 miles east to west, 2000 miles north to south, with three big peninsulas and islands tacked on. Back of the envelope says ~16 million square miles of terrain. The group will be unlikely to visit the same place twice; there is no home base, only the ever-moving expedition back home. How do I plan an interesting game?

Hex it up?

If the continent were smaller and our group were more into exploratory hex crawling, I could number off ~50,000 six mile hexes, run a stocking algorithm and sit back in amazement as the players try out yet another type of poisonous fruit or get chased up boobytrapped waterfalls by Drow, Giants, snakes, scorpions and piranhas.

It might get old at some point, but let's label it "Plan B". Boobytrapped waterfalls sound awesome.

Or I could treat the whole trip Indiana Jones style, with travel abstracted so I can zoom in on what's happening at adventure sites along the road back home. But then I miss out on any surprises that the terrain can spring on the party.

Demands on my game

  • players must be able to make a meaningful choice about their travel plans
  • spending game time on travel should be interesting
  • prep work should be minimal, but able to handle unexpected changes of plans

Meaningful choice tells me that I don't want to put the group on a railroad from predetermined site to site; they need to be able to learn about what is ahead, and choose where to go and what to avoid.

I'll cover keeping travel interesting by gauging the table during play. Solutions will be either to condense travel time ("you travel down the river a few days through these horrible marshes - roll to see whether the rations catch a mold or something") or by expanding it into a big part of the session ("there's a net across the river, with giant guards in uniforms patrolling the banks and towers in the distance. Whaddayado?"). Will need to rig the random encounters for a nice mix. Or give a short/long version of each encounter:

Toll post with net across river, a watch tower on either side of the river, giant guards in uniform. Druggie cult run by Shadeer, a naga sorceror looking for wealth and sacrifices to fund her research. Either roll stealth, pay 200 gp in valuables per party member, hand over a party member, or encounter 8 giant guards, 2 serpent folk druids and one naga.

Prep work is where I need to make a choice. I don't want to spend a lot of time slicing up the map with mega, macro and micro hexes. I also want to give a sense of progress along the long journey, which to me means some abstracting of travel time. Solution: a path crawl with quickly generated hexes for when the group goes off the path.

Adventure sites and travel routes

The big structure of Jungle Trek will be a path crawl: alternate between exploring adventure sites and negotiating travel routes. Adventure sites are detailed areas with lots of moving parts such as factions, plots, cities or dungeons. Travel routes connect adventure sites in a point crawl and can be stretched or condensed to taste. During travel, random generators serve up encounters, scenery, challenges and miniature adventure sites. If the party goes off a path and enters the wilderness proper, I'll quickly generate a couple of hexes and stock from random tables. These will include tips on how to navigate back to the paths and sites of the overall map.

In an algorithm:

  1. party sets out towards new adventure site, having found directions in the current site
  2. directions and rumors in the current/previous site hint at dangers along the path
  3. random encounters spit out high points of the trip to the new adventure site
    • if/when the party veers off-piste, generate local hexes with fun encounters and directions to the main attractions on the map
  4. travelers arrive at adventure site and adventure, maim, loot, burn and otherwise obliterify carefully prepped environment
    • if/when the party ignores the main contents of the area but goes exploring, run a local hex crawl again
  5. travelers wring information on the surrounding area from any surviving NPCs or structures
  6. travelers choose their next destination on their journey
Ideally, phases 1 and 5-6 are the start and end of a gaming session, so that I can flesh out a new adventure site in between sessions.

More on the random generators that kick in when the party Wander Off Stage Left To Explore What Lies Beyond Yonder Shrub in my next post - a cute little jungle crawl kit.

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