1 May 2020

Making Wilderness Play Meaningful — A System

Hot Springs Island: an interesting hexcrawl 

 

So as I covered in my previous post, which examined the history of wilderness exploration in D&D, I'm looking to create a decent rules skeleton to facilitate a hexcrawl-style game, with the ultimate goal of having my players actually want to play in the wilderness (hence the "meaningful" part of the post title).

In short, the existing D&D rules for such are vague (in a frustrating way, not in a freeing way), time-consuming, and not condusive to actual exploration.  Here's what I concluded I wanted instead:



  1. An elegant hex-based system for tracking overland travel.  No trying to mash hexes and miles together.  It needs to cleanly integrate mounts, weather, terrain, fatigue, and encumbrance with a base method of everyday travel.  Getting lost should be easy to adjudicate.  Overall, the first reaction of players and DMs when the wilderness map is brought out must not be a groan of dismay.  Ideally, there will be meaningful player choices available even at this stage.
  2. Interactions and effects not already present in dungeon play.  For example, dungeons have the hunt for traps and secret doors, things that generally don't feature in wilderness or urban play.  Hunting is a wilderness standard, though ideally we're going to have something more interesting than "fending off starvation".  Weather is a similar one.  Random encounters, already a staple of D&D, need to fit in to whatever new is added.
  3. Player-facing mechanics.  As this is going to be offering a new style of play (or, more accurately, facilitating an uncommon and old style), it needs to be presented to the players rather than reserved for DMs, so that players have the rules in front of them to prompt them to go exploring, but also so that the choices made while exploring can be informed ones.

#3 doesn't really need to be covered here, as it's simply a matter of making sure that the players have access to whatever rules you come up with, rather than walling them off behind the DM screen.  I've put these in my players handbook, and so they can consult them and plan around them.

Fundamentally, I want a better adventuring experience at the table, and also have no desire to increase granularity or simulationism.  Of course, the latter two might translate into the former for some, but not for me.  As such, some might feel my system is bare-bones, but for me it gets to the heart of what I see wilderness play should be: moving overland with a minimum of rules hassle, giving players the means to find cool stuff while doing so, and giving them meaningful choice in it all.

An elegant hex-based system for tracking overland travel

In my previous post I expressed my admiration for OD&D's system of hex-and-points based travel, despite it requiring the Outdoor Survival boardgame to use.  This is one of those cases where, I think, original D&D got it right and AD&D, in the quest for more rules and more granularity, went astray.  Since my primary goal is to play a hexcrawl anyways, let's go back to that.  Using hexes and points as the foundation of the system in a stroke gets rid of the awful miles vs. hexes interaction problem (again, see here for a recap).

First we need to set a hex scale.  Outdoor Survival used three-mile hexes.  OD&D used five-mile hexes.  However, I'm going to standardize on six-mile hexes, thanks to this seminal post over at the Hydra's Grotto.  The scale is reasonably common, and works well.

Now, for a moment here we have to switch to miles per day of travel, solely for the purpose of establishing a baseline of how far a group can travel each day.  Assuming open ground and no major obstacle, OD&D allowed characters to cover 15 miles per day, while 1st ed AD&D went for 24 or 30 miles per day (depending on whether you used the PHB or DMG, each of which had different rules).  B/X, BECMI, and 2nd ed AD&D all went with 24 miles per day, which became the standard that's carried on right through to 5th edition.  As 24 is a power of 6 (and 30 is going to be a bit high as a base due to some other modifiers I'm adding in later), it's going to work well with our six-mile hexes and so I'm going to stick with what is generally expected.  With our baseline established, we can ignore miles from here on out.

With the scale chosen, that gives a walking, unburdened party the ability to cover 4 clear hexes a day.


Click on any image to enlarge

Simple enough, I think, with a six-mile mountainous hex taking the better part of a travel day to navigate.

Next, we need to allow for environmental variance.  I don't want to get bogged down in a thousand subfactors here: in the same way that all terrain falls into three base categories, I'd like only a handful of modifiers to the above.



So if it's hard to see and/or hard to move, the rate slows.  If there's extreme heat or cold, it also slows.  A frozen, snowy mountain would be less than six miles a day (though if it was the dead of winter I'd just say mountain travel was impossible, as classically when winter came many mountain passes closed altogether and people could be stuck up there all season: this just covers blank-slate, first snow on the mountain-type situations).  Alternately, good roads can boost your travel rate to 30 miles a day.

Encumbrance is noted at the end of the above chart.  It needs to be covered, but this is trickier in that there's a lot of different encumbrance systems out there, and so we'll need to keep things simple if we want the mods to easily port over to whatever system is being used.


What Light, Moderate, and Heavy means is something you'd have to define yourself, but the matching Combat Speed penalties should give you a guideline.  For AD&D, they could translate to heavy, very heavy, and encumbered loads.  For B/X, they match up neatly to leather armour, metal armour, and metal armour plus treasure.  For BECMI, it would be the second through fourth burden categories, which have the same combat move percentage penalties.  For LotFP, they translate straight across to light, heavy, and severe encumbrance.

We also have to consider mounts.  I've not made these a massive speed boost, as I'm assuming long-distance travel rather than short dashes: you have to be careful not to ride them to death or break their legs.  As such, a lot of these look similar.  Much of what will distinguish a mount will be its encumbrance capacity, which I've cut off because again, people probably have their own rules on that.



I'm assuming in the worst terrain (the 3-point hexes) you'd have to walk your mounts, so they won't help you race through the jungle or mountains.

The main advantage to this system is that there's almost no tracking travel across hexes.  That is, you're either in one hex, or the next.  At most you'll have one fractional hex per day (the one at the end of the day, when you might run out of points for the day before making it to your next hex).  For example, if you want to enter a woods hex (2 points) but only have 1 point left, then you spend the 1 point and call it a day, and pick things up the next morning.  This ensures that you avoid having to record progress in awkward fractions (like, say, 1.43 hexes per day, which can easily happen with the AD&D system, e.g. 3.5-mile hexes, with a speed of 5 miles per day in the mountains on heavy horses).

Lastly, I wanted some player choice available even here.  I suppose what mount to buy is sort of a choice, but it's not quite what I had in mind.  I'm thinking the basic dilemma in the desire to push on/go faster, vs. the desire to move at a normal pace or even slow down and be extra cautious.



Force marches are of course a travel staple.  Procedurally there's rarely a need for speed, but when a curse or lethal disease kicks in or it's a race against time against the grimlock hordes, rules for extreme haste are valuable.  With a forced march on clear terrain, a unit can cover up to 30 miles a day, 36 if good roads are present.  This is well within the realm of the possible: the American 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment in late 1942 covered, in a three-day forced march, 136 miles with full equipment (Ambrose, D-Day, 141; about 45 miles a day).

Regarding the note on fatigue: I have my own separate fatigue system that defines what light or heavy fatigue is.  Like encumbrance, I'm presuming you can define what those labels mean yourself rather than me trying to shoehorn yet another new system into this post.  The relevant gameplay effect here is that, assuming you're fresh, you can force march for up to two days (fresh to light fatigue on day one, light to heavy fatigue on day two).

The cautious march is the more unusual choice.  While I found the in-depth hexcrawl rules presented on the Alexandrian blog to be far too in-depth for my liking, the idea of the cautious approach was one that appealed to me, and so I salvaged it for my own ruleset.  How this ties into random encounters I'll get to later.

Interactions and effects not already present in dungeon play

Fundamentally, all I want my wilderness rules to really do is to be a process smoothly funnelling cool stuff to the players.  Before I get to the mechanics, I want to explore what I see as an important distinction.

Exploration  vs. Survival

 

Most designers, content with AD&D-style wilderness movement, tend to place the meat of their hexcrawl system here.  I think a lot of systems go wrong with this by trying to make the system itself be the source of entertainment, when the content you encounter as a result of the system is really what's compelling.  D&D's dungeon exploration rules are, at their root, quite simple: they aren't in-depth on their own, but they facilitate the distribution of in-depth content: traps, rooms, and encounters.

What's worse is that the system that designers often go with for their source of wilderness entertainment are focused on procedural survival realism.  That means weather, watches or other segmentation of the day, hunting, fishing, foraging, crafting, disease.  However, in my experience survival elements become their own minigame but do not, through their results, make players want to actually do something wilderness-related.

In short, though frequently confused, survival and exploration are not the same thing.  Survival rules don't actually facilitate exploration.  In fact, they make exploration more onerous: mechanically more difficult and, in terms of the metagame, often outright tiresome.  As old-school games aren't adverse to adversity, greater difficulty isn't necessarily bad, but tiresome always is, and even if one doesn't find it tiresome, conflating survival and exploration is unlikely to make wilderness exploration compelling.

As such, survival is not really what I'm interested in, and if you are you might want to check out things like the Forbidden Lands system.  In terms of survival elements I do like, weather is good, but this is going to be long as it is and so I'll possibly look at that at a future date.  Disease I see as a generic system item--valuable, but just as likely to show up in sewers or dungeons as it is in the wilderness, and so not really belonging (just) here.  Fatigue, which starvation and other deprivation fits into, I see in the same way.  Crafting I dislike on a purely conceptual basis: I want an adventure game, not a crafting one.  Hunting is simple enough.  B/X has rules for it, and they're bad: only a 1 in 6 chance of rolling on the animal encounter table (which you then determine how much food the encounter gives you. I guess; no guidelines are given), and you can neither travel or rest that day.  For all that people say B/X and BECMI are identical, they aren't: BECMI is much clearer here, and that's more the version I use (not included here).

Finding Your Way

Now, to the exploration system.  Here's how you make your way from hex to hex.


Fieldcraft is something from my homebrew: it translates straight across to "is a ranger" or "has the appropriate Survival skill".  (As an aside, I often use a D12 rather than a D6 for things like this, because I like how it gives greater granularity than a D6 while still being easy to roll, easy to read, and maintaining compatibility with anything originally designed to use D6.)  The base odds of getting lost are on average lower than the traditional rules: B/X gave you a 33% chance per day of getting lost in a forest (one of the more common terrain types); in AD&D it's a 70% chance, and being a ranger didn't help with this unless the DM said they were familiar with the area you were in.  Here, assuming you cover four clear hexes or two woods hexes in a day with no ranger-like aid, a day's travel results in about a 30% chance of getting lost at least once, which I felt was enough.  It's very easy to raise, whether as a whole or just for select terrain types--just a matter of raising the terrain modifiers--if you prefer the more punitive old-school rates.

So, enter a hex, make a check.  For most of the old-school systems, getting lost requires a table and/or determining degrees off-course: far too fiddly for what I'm aiming for.  Inspired by the system found in The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad, I've changed it to a time waster (it consumes hex points) and a potential monster generator.  If you get lost, you make a navigation check to find your way.  As each navigation check requires a random encounter roll, wandering aimlessly through the wilderness may result in you stumbling onto more monsters.  There's a clear cost involved, but it's mechanically very easy to resolve: no tables to look up or protractors to consult for degrees off-course.

Note that "a respectable map" would include one that the players make, i.e. once the players have navigated their way through one hex to another, they don't need to make a check if taking that same path in the future.

Exploring

Okay, you've made your navigation check and all is well.  Now what?


In a hexcrawl it's often assumed that you just find whatever is in a hex once you entered it.  In part this annoys me because of the lack of realism, but the main issue is that it doesn't give much in the way of depth to a hex.  A six-mile hex is big: plenty of room for obscure things buried in the corners.  I want a system that makes the game world feel like there are all sorts of hidden wonders out there, awaiting only a dedicated party willing to risk the time and chance of battle to find them--one willing to explore.  Having every oddity leap out at you the moment you arrive doesn't give me that.

With this system, as a GM you'd classify each hex feature as one of two types: overt and hidden.  Overt are the classic type: enter the hex, find the thing.  Hidden features are your lost cities and hidden caves and clearings and bandit lairs: the stuff it takes time and effort to uncover.**  Having the two types allows you to really make your world feel layered, while preventing the player perception that everything is in a bizarre kind of stasis, lying around solely in wait for them.

By default I have hidden features automatically found if the players make the effort to search, with the assumption that not all hexes will have such a thing.  This can be easily modified via a quick added roll for certain features to represent especially well-hidden items (or perhaps an increased search cost representing especially difficult-to-search hexes).  However, my general belief is that if the players have invested the time and are willing to risk the extra encounter roll, you might as well just give them the hidden feature.  This approach makes even more sense when you consider that hex content is almost always written assuming the Judges Guild method of automatically being encountered.  As such, it's generally not "you find a holy avenger +5 lying in a field" or whatnot that deserves being strongly siloed away, as that sort of thing would in a dungeon.  At most I would institute a known but otherwise secret roll of "you find any hidden feature on a 2+ on D6": just enough to add a touch of uncertainty to the process, while making it the vast majority of the time worthwhile.

Random Encounters

And then comes the last part.  You need to have this all tied into the random encounter system, to reflect the types of terrain you're using but also so that player choices are meaningful.  Slower pace equals less monsters.  Time spent searching equals more monsters.

Again, note that it's a D12, not a D6

The rougher the terrain, the greater the chance is of finding monsters.  On the other hand, if you have a ranger, it doesn't eliminate the dangers (we want to avoid a 5th edition-like scenario where having a ranger removes all danger and uncertainty from overland travel), but it certainly mitigates them.  Assuming no other modifiers, having a ranger means that you go from a 33% chance of an encounter in a mountain or swamp hex to a 25% chance; in a woods or hills hex you go from a 25% chance to a 16.5% chance.  What makes a hex "safe" or "especially dangerous" is up to the GM (as is the specific dangerous modifier).  Neither modifier is meant to be used regularly, but it gives some flexibility in shaping the tone and hazards of the wilderness; it also makes things overall less mathematically predictable.  Information hinting that a given area is safer or more dangerous can be given to the players ahead of time through rumours, general tavern chat and the like (e.g. the areas nearest your home base town / keep are patrolled by the local militia and so are generally safer, while X forest is known as the home of the Bonegnasher orc clan and so is an especially risky visit).

As for camping, you can light a fire at night, which allows you to see your attackers if ambushed, but also makes that ambush a bit more likely (though with something like wolves I'd automatically adjust their reaction roll to "not interested" to reflect their fear of fire and probably end the encounter).

Download


Below is the entire thing in two pages, as a PDF (remember: Fieldcraft = is a ranger / has the right Survival skill):

Simulacrum Wilderness Exploration Rules

This has been a longer post than I intended, but I didn't want to split this part over multiple ones, and I find rules posts useless without a solid grounding in the theory behind them, so one can understand why the designer's choices were made and better see how the rules will play out.

**After coming up with this I was pretty impressed with myself, until I saw afterwards that the Necropraxis blog had done the exact same thing back in 2013, the only difference being "obvious" features rather than overt ones.  As my version saves two letters, it is clearly the objectively superior choice.

 

EDIT 28 Sept 2020: Updated draft to better explain when navigation checks were made, and to increase the costs in most cases of getting lost.

17 comments:

  1. I like this a lot do you have a working doc of your houserules to share? I think your initial posts a few years back got me thinking about doing my own rules, which I am now playing regularly.

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  2. Google keeps eating my replies to you, so let's see if this goes through.

    Congrats on getting your own set of rules up and running, and finding guinea pigs to use them on--not something to be taken for granted. I'd love to see them, if you feel up to posting them.

    As for my own ruleset, it's pretty much done, barring further playtest feedback (I've run some short games with it, but start a long-term campaign using it tomorrow). I've also started a cross-clone comparison series which may influence my design down the road. But at the moment I'm pretty happy with it. There's also a GM's book, but for now I'll just link the player's/main rules:

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/wk1ub7wril6va39/Simulacrum%20-%20The%20Cloning%20-%201%20May%202020.pdf?dl=0

    I'll leave this up for a while. Cheers.

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  3. I should have linked to my blog where there's some discussion of it. The layout on the rules page is terrible though so I'll just link to gdoc as well. Congrats on getting a campaign started. Long term play brings out all the edge cases. I'm currently obliged to consider multi-classing due to player questions.
    https://neradia.blogspot.com/
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1hVb7bAEEijKsp277DHrq2kU3I17VYdy-ihjPRJoDyXI/edit?usp=sharing

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  4. How would you handle a lightly encumbered (+1 cost),entering a mountain hex during poor weather (+1 cost) ?

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  5. Anonymous: That's covered in the full pdf write-up I posted at the end. For any scenario where you're able to spend points towards entering a hex, but can't get there in the same day (i.e. you run out of points for the day), you mark what you've spent that day, and then start adding whatever you spend the next day on it. Only when you've spent the full cost do you actually enter a hex and trigger the new navigation check.

    This does mean that a party transporting a 14-ft-high golden Buddha (3 pts) through the freezing, snowy mountains (5 pts) is going to take two days just to cover one hex, but I don't see it as an issue. It also means tracking point expenditures across days in such cases, but the math is extremely simple. In play it more often comes up when the party transitions from clear hexes to multiple hills or forests, but it's not been an issue in terms of management at all.

    About the only problem I see, if you consider it such, is that a party travelling at a slow speed is making fewer random encounter checks over time than one moving at normal speed. But they still have a minimum of one each day, when bedding down for the night. The increased food use would be the main thing in those cases.

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  6. This is very cool! Thanks a lot for sharing!

    What are your thoughts on the resources and how they limit the exploration? Can the party explore indefinitely or are they limited by something?

    The obvious answer is food, but then there is a question of foraging: is foraging or not a meaningful choice (does it have consequence or risk)? If there is not, then party can keeps foraging as they travel and travel indefinitely. If there is a risk (additional encounter checks), then it's worth taking food with themselves and it somewhat limits how far they can.

    The other option are obviously HPs and losing them due to encounters. How fast would they recover? Would the encounters generally make the party lose HPs over time?


    Also, how does player skill > character skill fit into rolling for survival? Unlike searching for traps, it's hard to ask "how do you survive". Are there some meaningful player level choices at this level (e.g. knowing where you have shelters, so you can make decisions about how to travel; doing initial exploration with the goal of finding shelters or setting animal traps for food)?

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  7. Filip: Dzień dobry. :)
    My main thought on the subject is that I think a GM should feel free to ladle survival elements on top of their exploration system if they want, but not to mix the two out of a belief that by adding the former, you're getting the latter.

    But if we're on the same page there and you're just wondering how I handle survival as an ancillary set of mechanics, then the main limiters there for my games are food and hit points. Not eating generates increasing levels of fatigue after a day without food, and fatigue can be lethal. In my current campaign the party quickly adopted mules as their main food hauler, so rations aren't really a problem unless something eats the mules (as has happened once, when they ran into a max-HD ankheg ambush). Foraging I have currently as a freebie, but with only a 15% chance of success, while hunting takes a whole day but is guaranteed to feed the party for that day and if successful will add 1D4+2 days worth of rations on top (thus avoiding the B/X situation where the most likely result of trying to survive by hunting is rapid starvation). Ranger-type characters make success in both scenarios more likely. I require an encounter check for hunting, but no extra one for foraging (they already generate one for moving through hexes, and the idea of foraging is that it's "on the hoof", so to speak).

    As for healing, I have healing rates out of civilization slow to once every two days (again, unless you're a ranger and it's your favoured terrain). Spell recovery still happens as normal (unless you were attacked at night, interrupting your rest), but this has proven a decent incentive to the party to get back home if the party has no magical healing source (or very little of it), which is common in my games, especially at low levels.

    Lastly, as for how player skill vs. character skill fits into rolling for survival, for me it doesn't. I see player skill as something to be reserved for the most important / least standardized elements of play, since it's more time consuming to handle and because forcing roleplaying for something that generally turns out the same way every time bores people. For something everyday like hunting, against unintelligent prey in fairly standard environments and with no meaningful complications, I just call for a roll. But then again, while I see survival as a valuable element, I don't see the value in making it complex or time-consuming (i.e. the sort of things that might call for the use of player skill). I know there are systems that add meaningful survival choice and potentially allow player skill to enter play, but that's not for me.

    How it's all been working in my campaign is that players eventually accrue more damage than they can handle in the wilderness and eventually want to return to civilization to heal up (and drop off loot/remove encumbrance, buy new supplies, and get their XP). A party with two or three magical healers and a ranger could conceivably explore to their heart's content without being compelled to return for survival-related reasons, but I don't see that as particularly troublesome.

    Overall, I'd say add whatever survival mechanisms you're happy with: this is only how I do it, and my way is by no means necessary if you're using the exploration rules presented here, because again, I see them as 100% separate. Cheers.

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  8. Cześć!

    Thanks a lot for explaining!

    If survival is not terribly important to you, then can you shed some light on why track the food and require foraging at all? Why not just say that the party forages during the game and leave it at that? What does this achieve story or game wise? I am asking questions, because I would like to establish this for my games.

    I was thinking about having foraging be a decision: you can forage easily, but it increases encounter chance. So the party is encouraged to either maintain rations or procure food in some other way during the game (e.g. skinning and splitting defeated beast - and perhaps take a risk of getting poisoned or having foul meat).

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  9. Filip:
    My basic feeling on survival rules is that they're neither essential nor innately bad, just commonly misapplied. As such, I figure people should use as many or as few of them as they want. My current setup is my personal sweet spot in that regard: enough to acknowledge the existence of some of the potential difficulties, but not too much that it annoys me (a wholely arbitrary standard). The party still has to juggle encumbrance for food, so there's still a game effect even if right now in the game they largely just load up a mule with iron rations and otherwise not worry about it unless the thing gets eaten or stolen. I could easily see a DM going for more or less in that regard, and neither is wrong as long as it works for the group as a whole.

    I think your ideas concerning foraging are fine (and something I briefly considered myself). I'd probably increase the success chance for foraging, though, if it's going to raise the likelihood of attracting encounters. Only a 15% success rate plus more monsters doesn't seem to me like a choice a player group would make all that often.

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  10. I've been using this system for a few weeks now and it's been working pretty well. I also wanted to check and see if your houserules are available somewhere, as the above link is not longer working

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    1. Really glad to hear it: it's always nice to know that something working at your table is working at someone else's too. Anything unclear or kind of clumsy or otherwise could be improved?

      As for my game, I pulled the old copy because it keeps changing as I playtest it. Here's the most recent version of the Player's Manual: I'll leave it up for a while as well.
      https://tinyurl.com/yyrcujsw

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    2. Thanks! We've been using B/X, and the part that's working really well is the point-system for travel. It's simple enough to explain to players, and it maps on to B/X's encumbrance system really well.

      One change from your system, though, is that to reduce rolls, I do the navigation check for a day's travel rather than per-hex, and same with encounters. One thing that strikes me as a bit odd about your encounter-checks is that, in a safe plains hex, there's no chance of encounters. Which makes sense if encounters are only combative, but I also like the idea that encounters can include anything in that region, not just monsters.

      As an alternative, I've been using just a daily random event system, rolled by the players at day and night:

      1d12 events

      Travel
      1-3: Encounter
      4-5: Hazard
      6-7: Spoor
      8-10: Uneventful
      11-12: Location

      Travel: Difficult
      1-4: Encounter
      5-6: Hazard (x2)
      7-9: Hazard
      10: Spoor
      11-12: Location

      Camp
      1-3: Encounter
      4-6: Spoor
      7-12: Uneventful

      (also some other tables for Exploring, Hunting, etc.)

      The actual encounter tables in safer areas will have less combative entries(e.g. often traders, passing travelers, etc.), but the encounter-rates are often the same. Anyway, so far it's worked as way to reduce encounter rolls--most sessions cover a couple weeks worth of travel without too much difficulty.

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  11. I love this Hex Point system - but do you have any thoughts on water hexes? How much should they cost? Or would they fall under another system? Thanks for your excellent posts!

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    1. I hadn't considered water at all: nautical adventuring isn't something I run enough to bother with it. I imagine it would follow the same general system though; based on a very quick look at some speeds for common vessels, I'd go with about 12 6-mile hexes a day for a trireme or a Renaissance-era sailing ship (carrack/caravel). Terrain modifiers would probably come down almost entirely to wind, whether in your favour or a headwind or storm. Force marching would be a thing for rowed triremes/galleys, as would exhaustion in general. Thanks for reading.

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  12. I'm getting ready to run Hot Springs Island next month, and this post gave me some things to think about. I really appreciate how you laid out your design intentions and then the implementation that supports them. What I use for HSI will be different than what you have here, since I'm trying to work more with HSI's original design intent (you always find a Point of Interest when you enter a hex, etc.), but the concepts in your posts are very helpful!

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    1. I'm glad you're finding it useful, and I'd love to hear about how things work out at the table. Good luck!

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