18 July, 2020

The Joys of Emergent Gameplay

Whew, okay, PhD done.  Now I can write and generally have a life again.

I've started a campaign with my homebrew about three months ago (over Zoom, thanks to the plague).  Nominally it's playtesting, though realistically I'm happy enough with it at this point that I'm fine just running it as a game, with anything useful in the way of playtesting data that comes up being a bonus.

It's a sandbox campaign because what initially drew me to old-school D&D was the idea of having a less GM-intensive game I could run.  Games I ran for about 20 years were all quite plot-based, which required extensive prep, and as I grew busier with real life (and increasingly felt like I'd hit a rut in terms of the sort of plots I generated), the attraction of just creating a world and letting loose a pack of adventurous, active players seemed more and more appealing.  I'm blessed with a great group, so I knew I could count on them to take charge once I explained to them the basic concepts of old-school and sandbox play.

I've seeded numerous megadungeons in a post-apocalyptic landscape, which gives me all sorts of opportunity to have ruins everywhere and for civilization to be rare pockets amidst a vast, untamed wilderness.  I've decided to make it a hexcrawl for the wilderness portion, as I've worked up a set of hexcrawl mechanics I'm quite happy with, but it's really up to the players if they want to head into the wilderness and wander around or make for the dungeons.

So far Greg Gillespie's Highfell has had the greatest appeal, but there's been a decent amount of wilderness exploration, if only at times to find the dungeons the rumours are telling them about.  In one such case, while roaming through the forest an encounter came up.  Rolling on my random encounter tables, I got a small pack of werewolves.  The Reaction Table said they were neutral/uncertain, so I just had them shadow the party.  The group has rapidly understood that they don't have to fight everything they encounter (the first time they encountered gnolls at night that just wanted to share their campfire was I think the key moment in bringing this concept home).  So they ignore the werewolves and eventually they go away.

In terms of hex features (random items, unusual terrain, etc that show up in a hex besides your usual random encounter rolls), I've stocked my hexes by plundering every hex crawl I can find and taking the ones that meet my standards.  I feel a hexcrawl feature has to be a) memorable and b) interactable on some notable level--features that are just neat but would lead a player group to puzzle over them to no effect are just frustrating and time-consuming, actually discouraging exploration and experimentation (because no one wants to pixelbitch their way through a game week after week).  So I selected for those two attributes.

While I've taken some material from Isle of the Unknown, most of my features are drawn from John Stater's work, who is a hexcrawling machine.  I started with his Hex Crawl Chronicles series for Frog God Games, but he also usually includes a very hefty hexcrawl in each issue of his NOD Magazine, which I strongly recommend: there's something like 150-200 hexes per issue, all of varying themes (Africa, Persia, Dark Elves, etc; there's two free issues to download at the link if you want a sample).  I've got a base list of just over 100 features culled from all this.  I haven't seeded more than handful on my campaign map ahead of time (the ones whose effects would be obvious, and thus would have some news of them spreading, so I can seed rumours to go with them).  When the party enters a hex, I just roll D100 and see what comes up.  As such, I usually don't know what's coming any more than the players do.

The day after their werewolf random encounter, a couple of forest hexes away, I roll up this as a hex feature:

The valleys of this hex lead to a wooded plateau where is situated a natural rock formation that resembles a howling wolf. This place is sacred to the wolves of the region, who gather here on full moons to howl their praises to their deity. Encounters with packs of 3D4 wolves occur in this hex on a roll of 1-4 on 1D6, and at full moons one finds upwards of 120 wolves, 60 dire wolves and 30 worgs baying around the rock formation. During these moon gatherings, the Wolf King appears enthroned on the rock formation, selecting especially fine specimens of wolf with which to breed. Visitors can approach King Wolf safely if they affix a spike of lupine flowers (they grow liberally in the lower valleys of the hex) to their clothes and keep their weapons sheathed. If these adventurers can beat King Wolf at a contest (hunting down the largest deer) he provides them with a wolf-shaped charm that grants the wearer the ability to track by scent (75% success).

They notice all the relatively fresh wolf spoor in the area and so decide to be cautious and not mess with the shrine.  As they don't have enough movement to leave the hex, they camp nearby for the night.

I rolled randomly to see what day it is.  I don't have a D30, so I just rolled D20 and decide that if I get a natural 20, it's a full moon (which percentage-wise isn't right, but full moons last 1-3 days depending on how you're counting, so whatever).  Natural 20 it is: the moon rises in the sky and I start chuckling.

They're surrounded on all sides by wilderness and so I decide that wolves are going to be coming from all directions: that many predators aren't living in a single six-mile hex.  So I tell them as they set watches for the night that they hear howls, then more howls in a different direction, then yet more somewhere else: dozens and dozens of howls.  The party quickly puts two and two together regarding the moon and that shrine they passed earlier in the day, but also those random werewolves from the day before, which of course were just a random encounter and had nothing to do with this.  A frantic debate ensures as to whether they will try to hole up with an ample fire, climb trees and try to hide, or run like hell: they eventually choose the latter.  It's a tense nighttime run, but they make it out.

A couple of weeks later the party is in the area again.  They're smart enough to give the wolf shrine a wide berth, but there's still random encounters, and lo and behold, a couple hexes away in the woods I roll up werewolves again.  Now, the encounter tables I've made are 3D6 tables, and werewolves have only a 2.77% chance of showing up, but here we go again.  And again I roll a neutral result for reaction.  The wolves are just shadowing them again, not moving closer.

Turns out 026.009 is werewolf country.  Who knew?  Certainly not me.

At this point the party is wondering what the hell is going on.  Did they do something wrong at the shrine?  What are these wolves up to?  And I'm loving it.  I press them as to what they're doing, and one member decides he's just going to solve this mystery by approaching them and hoping not to die.  Another reaction roll is made: a 12, so highly favourable this time!  He's not supper and instead the werewolves actually like the approach.

No need to go into the rest of it in detail: it's all on-the-spot improv on my part, as I have to come up with a reason why these wolves keep shadowing them, how they connect to the shrine, what it meant for the party to have been at the shrine and fled in the night, and so on.  In short, I decide these are greater werewolves, favoured servants of the Wolf King with control over their bestial nature and able to roam around freely without succumbing to bloodlust.  The party welcomes them and gives them meat, and I decide their approach and successful escape on the night of the full moon has impressed the wolves.  I state that the party are now known as Wolffriends: if I roll any wolves or werewolves as random encounters in the general area (i.e. in the Wolf King's domain), the encounter will automatically resolve favourably for them, with no replacement roll made.  One player volunteers to accept the "blessing" of lycanthropy, thinking that he'll be able to be a fully conscious and in-control werewolf like the five they've just met, but a bite later he learns that he's just cursed as a normal werewolf with no powers at all until the full moon rises, at which point he's a crazed killer, and much laughter is had (and much discussion of logistics of subduing the player when the moon rises; they're only second level and poor, so Cure Disease isn't available).  At this point they don't know about the Wolf King, and frankly I don't know how he fits into this either: that's something to figure out in a future game.


I wanted to write about this because I couldn't stop grinning after the game.  I never would have written any of that on my own ahead of time, and had no plans for this area other than "monster-infested forest": it all came about as the result of random rolls on tables and player reactions to such.  Looking at the odds, we have:

2.77% chance of the first werewolf encounter
97.22% chance that they weren't immediately hostile
1% chance of that hex feature coming up
5% chance of it being a full moon
2.77% chance of another werewolf encounter
97.22% chance that they weren't immediately hostile
2.77% chance of the werewolves then reacting friendly

Taking those odds into account, we have about a 0.000001004% chance of all that coming together.

Assuming I've done my math right (never a given), that's about 1-in-100 million odds.  You're more likely to be hit by a meteor (1 in 700,000 chance, apparently).  You're more likely to die from being a left-handed person who tragically misuses a product designed for the right-handed (1 in 7 million chance, apparently).

One of the key reasons this all worked out, apart from the randomness, is that I don't reveal my rolls as distinct steps.  That is, while for me there's a fixed order to things--the random encounter check, and then the hex feature check--the players don't have this systematized view.  They don't know what I'm rolling at any given time, because I'm not declaring "okay, here's the random encounter check", etc.  As such, they don't know that roll X is for a random encounter and thus has probably no greater importance, while roll Y is for a hex feature and thus is probably more lasting in its effects.  Without such knowledge, they have no reason to mentally discard the werewolf encounters as "just encounters".  I also don't treat these encounters as such when speaking to the players: I try to make them colourful, even just a bit (I don't tend to bother with unintelligent creatures: stirges don't have deep emotional motivations).  In this case, the werewolves weren't encountered in the open just standing there and then "result 6-8: neutral/uninterested", they were "hanging back and shadowing the party, keeping largely hidden in the trees".  The overall effect is that for the players, everything matters, and thus it all has the opportunity to meld together into a cohesive narrative.  While only one of the three wolf encounters was a hex feature (the wolf shrine) and so meant to "matter", to the players any of them could have mattered, and so they're all treated as such.  And by playing it loose like that and working to tie things together, they all did wind up mattering.

Overall, I had a great time, the players seemed to have enjoyed it, that area of the map has been shaped in ways I never anticipated, and gameplay has been meaningfully affected going forward both in the area (a shrine appears, Wolffriend status achieved) and from a wider perspective (one player is a werewolf now).  All thanks to the alchemical magic of random rolls, improv, and player reactions.