I’ve posted a couple hex descriptions for my campaign world and thought I’d do a post about my still-forming methodology and motives.
While Mimir’s Head and Kyrgorod Keep are keyed as 0101 and 0102 respectively, I’ve no intent to be held to those numbers for my final hex map; those markers are placeholders and indicate only the order in which I’ve created map content.
Though the context and name will be different, Dyson Logos’ Vardisstvy map will be the wellspring for my game. Its castle and surrounding village are just the right scale for a beginning party of frontier adventurers. The working title for my castle and village has for three years been “Ostrog,” a Russian term for “fortress”, expressing the aspiration that my homebase approach something as archetypal as the borderlands keep Gary Gygax created which has served to launch a thousand lengthy campaigns.
Following the advice of a score of blogs and GM-guides, my world-building will start small. I’ll flesh out the campaign world only as players dictate by their actions and interests at the table. My “Keep on the Borderlands” will be surrounded by six detailed hexes, one in each of six directions.
I’ve looked at a number of hexcrawl materials over the years. Hex keying seems to vary from the very sparse, (the briefest of Judges Guild’s Wilderlands of High Fantasy entries) to keys covering a page or more of content (hexes from Dolmenwood or NOD). I’m often struck both by how evocative a sentence or two can be, and by how intimidatingly creative the longer entries are from the best modern products. My own efforts feel wordy or dull by comparison.
One thing I don’t always see are adequate player-facing reasons as to why a group of beginning adventurers might risk traveling from one place on a map to another beyond the conceit of playing adventurers. Some elements might be there, but they aren’t explained to a prospective referee; there are fantastical people and places I want to visit in my imagination, but I can’t see any methodology to the proximate group of locations that bear much weight in launching a nascent campaign. I don’t think this is critical - the players will likely land on motives and/or the GM will offer some potential hooks. One does read about hex crawls floundering when some groups attempt them & I want to avoid this. I have a lot of ideas about how to bypass the most commonly observed perils & these include a careful and thoughtful construction of my starting keep and six of its closest environs.
I think you want your frontier keep and village to have enough resources, people and sites of interest that beginning adventures won’t immediately make the several days journey to the nearest town or city after they feel they’ve exhausted the local “Caves of Chaos.” Why is this design consideration important to me? I’ve started other campaigns where I’ve built up several NPCs for which one or more players developed affection or hatred (both useful for drama and interest), but the call of distant adventures and the resources only a city can offer sent them too quickly afield & I felt some of the energy of the campaign dissipate as a result. A lengthy Blades in the Dark campaign I ran recently reminded me of the power of sticking around in one place for a while and of the principle of the “Law of the Conservation of NPCs.”
The presence of some things don’t make much sense for a small frontier village. My solution is to put some form of those city enticements outside of my village a hex or two away. These provide reasons to risk the forest dark and to travel from hex to hex, returning home to base. These enticements should be unpredictable and they should be something beyond treasure and death-defying armed conflict. Those things may presumably be found in the local dungeon so why go elsewhere?
The first reason one might go to a more populous place would be to find expertise in the form of a “sage.” In the D&D Expert Set a sage specialist was considered so valuable that it cost 2000 gp/month to employ one & so rare that “there might be few in an entire campaign.” This resource is covered by Mimir’s Head. Dealing with Mimir is risky but hopefully enticing enough for adventurers to leave the “keep-to-dungeon highway” to seek information about adversaries, ruins & relics. I believe putting a reliable sage inside the walls of a beginning settlement would be a mistake and a missed opportunity.
A second reason one might seek a town or city is to hire less sagacious retainers, the kind foolish enough to brave a murderous underground hellhole, bearing torch or treasure for rogues like our protagonists. The common clay of the new West. You know… hirelings. There’ll be a few of these available in Ostrog, but more might be found at the nearby Kyrgorod Keep, along with other opportunities.
I’ll detail the other four locations in the weeks ahead as I decide what they’ll be and hone my method, but I’ll leave off here to expand on the protocol for each of my six locations, my “oracular hexes.”
Taking cues from the economical modules of the 70s and early 80s, many modern “old school” products are respectably efficient with their location details. In many, though, I still see long paragraphs of world-building content that referees need to wade through. They might be fun to read & full of content that give a moderator a sense of place, but it’s left to the GM to figure out how to convey these paragraphs adroitly to a table of other players and to recall on-the-spot which details are most important. And of course many modules are still quite prescriptive in their location’s details. There’s maybe only one essential feature or plot that drives the narrative, the “adventure path.” For a hex crawl, this approach contains at least two great sins. One, I as the referee do not get to be as surprised as the other players by what might happen when such a world location is encountered. Two, what’s to occur when the players return to that location even if one does manage to retain and convey every detail about that place built from long paragraphs?
My solution is “oracular hexes” & my inspirations come from techniques employed by Vincent Baker in the town-building protocols of Dogs in the Vineyard, oracular elements from games like In A Wicked Age, Fiasco, Downfall & similar, as well as a myriad modern old-school FRPG products with their improvisational-play random tables.
My forms are unsettled, but each of my campaign’s hexes will have one or two brief paragraphs followed by a 1d6 random table for a referee (me) to roll on when the location is discovered that tells what is going on foremost at that location in that moment. My intent is each of the six results, read in order by a referee that desires to do so, would expand on both the general character of that location and of a potential/occasional future state for that place. A well-written oracular hex would require reading only the first brief paragraph(s). These would be the “boxed text” of the place. The random table provides only what’s most important about the place just then.
A too typical FRPG location entry might tell you a half dozen things about the most important NPC, often the ruler, in the form of multiple paragraphs. The assumed situation often seems to suggest the PCs will not see this person any time soon. If they do it would take a long time to uncover all the details and intrigues provided. See some products from the vast worlds of 2nd edition D&D, (some I adore as a reader), for more egregious examples of this approach. For an oracular hex, one of the random entries might well provide a detail or two about an important NPC, but they only become necessary to reference for that location with that die roll result.
My best contents for the d6 table for an oracular hex will vary, but I foresee three likely mainstays. Looking to Kyrgorod Keep they might be 1) One or more “fulcrum” situations that reveal the place in an unsteady state. It’s then a place in motion, a place where adventurers might for better or worse interpose themselves by their actions. 2) One or more opportunities or resources that are almost entirely upside. These are the enticements that prompt adventurers to travel, to visit and to re-visit these locations in the hope that “their number comes up” when they’re able to access that place’s intermittent assets. 3) An entry that is referenced in at least one other hex and/or a recurring character that might also be encountered at another oracular hex’s random table. This should serve to make the world feel real, lived in & changing. It will give me the opportunity to re-introduce the setting’s hopefully colorful characters, reiterate themes as well as give the other players the chance to catch up with old friends & travelers.