against the grain: evolutionary sandboxes and fun with hexmaps

Our sandbox campaign is picking up speed lately.

Players are keen on following the seeds I plant and other things I mention. They are taking way more initiative, doing things on their own and buy pack mules and mercenaries to guard their remote camps.

Awesome; exactly what I wanted, for a few reasons:

  1. Players are way more engaged now: the empowerment given by the “endgame” usually does that, even if they don’t have fortresses/armies yet, but as previously mentioned they got crenelation rights over a ruined fortress (it’s the ruined Rodemus Castle from Moldway repurposed as “ruined border fortress, blocking a mountain pass used to trade with the Eastern Kingdom” (and before you dismiss “Eastern Kingdom” as a lame name, please note it’s more or less the meaning of Österreich, Austria for your anglophones)).
  2. Their drive make interesting campaign elements emerge and I just need to riff on them, which is helpful because I can simply give full attention to bloom  better focus on NPCs, encounters, locations, rhythm. Furthermore player having ideas keeps me from fretting over planting seeds, as the “campaign elements density” reaches criticality (the point where people start saying “I can’t keep track of what the heck is going on”) sooner, which in my opinion is the sweet spot.
  3. The most valuable insight I gained from running this campaign is that interesting seeds (either introduced by me or by them) are followed more; even better, in a sandbox the best seeds are the followed ones, those garnering interest from players. Bad seeds don’t sprout simply because they’re not followed, removing the motivation to sprout at all, and with it the effort. Obviously the DM can make them evolve in the background anyway, if he can be bothered/remember to. See “criticality” above, and prepare to read more about this as my thoughts on the topic coalesce 🙂

The other topic for tonight is random ramblings on hexmaps.

Using Hexographer I started to put together my campaign map, with 24 miles hexes, as per BECMI set. It started as a “glue” to link dungeons and towns, and evolved by conglomerating bits and bobs from previous campaigns the group was not involved with, and by writing some bad fiction (I’m too ashamed of that to even show it to my players): the first glued bits were B/X Rodemus Castle, Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos, Threshold (later removed and changed to Capolago, “LakeEnd”), Sham’s Dismal Depths, a handful of villages and so on.

Here on the right there’s map a portion depicting the Libera Lega di Sidesi, “Sidesi Free League”, a bunch of ex-warlords that conquered bits and pieces of wild lands and asked settlers over. The land still a bit rough, as it’s mostly woods and mountains, but it’s a good place to live as an adventurer. Borders are dashed in red, Capolago is the town right in the middle of the map and Sidesi is 5 hexes south of it. The map is still incomplete as, well, most things are still TBD. The grain is vertical, as you can see.

Why do I care about grain? Because I use hexes to resolve movement and to track positions. Hexmaps have lots of qualities (go read Dunnigan’s Complete Wargames Handbook if you’re interested in hexpr0n), but the fault of introducing distortion if moving against the grain (well, it’s a problem common to all maps with discrete, “grid-like” locations): if in the map right here you wanted to move two hexes to the right you’d moving “two steps” (for example SE,NE) but the “real” distance is the square root of three (about 1.73). Not as bad as “squared” maps with diagonal movement costing 1 or 2 (and not 1.5), but still.

A little advice: orientate the hex grains on the expected “usual” travel directions. If you expect movement to happen from east to west, pick an horizontal grain, if north to south pick an horizontal grain. Even better, take a fountain pen and some good paper, draw a map and use compass and ruler to calculate movement disregarding entirely the grid.

A couple of weeks ago I learnt about the free Judges Guild map template and its design and decided that, well, I had to use it. So I started to draw maps with 5-mile hexes. The purple hex is to show the extension of the “big hex” from the JG templates. Here’s the “more detailed” map, with Capolago in the middle, the Keep on the Borderlands and Caves of Chaos at the NW edge, Rodemus Castle to the SE and the dismal Depths under the ruined castle in the mountain hex by the lake. The south is more developed as it’s where players hang out more. Lots of stuff is not on this map obviously, as my players read the blog… 🙂

Something else to consider when “putting places on maps” is overland speed. Unencumbered PC can travel 32 miles/day on roads, 24 on “easy” ground. This makes me definitely realize that PCs are either trained soldiers, expert trekkers or übermenschen: have you walked 32 miles miles a day on paths for more than a week, cooking and setting up camp every day, maybe in the rain, maybe with bad wounds, possibly while having fights with monsters and horders of goblinoids?

Or maybe they were fitter as they walked everywhere and had manual jobs and, most important, were not not unfit geeks that enjoy playing fantasy adventure games.