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World-building, continued: What about maps?

In thinking about my post-apocalyptic fantasy game, the centerpiece of the game would be a massive overworld map with tons of places to go and interesting things to see/do/kill. I still want the game to focus on overworld, but I’m now actually thinking about how to run it. Turns out, I’m not sure I want that map.

To be fair, I still want this to be a hex-crawl game, at least at the overworld level (I read a cool article about hex math and sub-hexing, but the idea of scaling a game from 6 mile hexes down to battlemat scale in three to four levels of sub-hexing makes my head spin). But as I keep reading about hex-crawling and how it’s been done, I realize that the top-down approach may simply not work very well for me.

Back in 2014, I wrote a campaign setting for Fifth Edition D&D, in which I ran about 15 sessions across two partial campaigns. Using a random map generator, I filled in an overworld with all sorts of cool geographic details, geopolitical entities, and historical sites. Then, when I ran the game, all that overworld I had just kind of faded into the background. Even when I ran a travel montage, the map didn’t give me much. I tightened the scale of the map mid-game because the travel times were doing nothing other than being boring.

And I should have remembered this when I decided to start planning this game. My fantasy of this game does involve the incredibly detailed overworld map and the notion that PCs would eventually build settlements and change what the map looked like…but none of that is predicated on me having a full map at the start of the game. And as I look into what I want to emphasize, setting, flavor, and mechanics-wise…I don’t need to know where anything is. My magic/religion ideas around spirits have this beautiful side effect that they’d be very localized, obviating the need for holy sites that characters would know of ahead of time.

I am now planning to randomly generate my world in a very different way: one hex at a time. This is going to produce some very interesting results, as well as some weirdness, but I think it’ll make things a lot of fun. It also has some great thematic tie-in to the notion of a post-apocalyptic game: the Dark Ages in history were about knowledge being lost, and not knowing the full extent of the inhospitable world before you is a wonderful way to emulate that.

I will need to figure out starting characters for whom it makes sense to have never ventured more than a few miles from home. This is a subtle problem…the vast majority of people living in a world with a Dark Ages technology level probably never travelled more than a full day’s trek away from home in their lives, which generously equates to a 25 mile radius (the majority of people in a Dark Ages world couldn’t afford horses). In most hex-scaling regimes that’s about 7 overworld hexes, which is a perfect start. The complication comes from the fact that in fiction and most RPGs, the player characters are adventurers, exactly the minority of people who would be travelling. The post-apocalyptic setting makes this slightly easier; there are a large number of reasons that a group of people would have to pull up roots for the first time. That said, it is writing I need to do beforehand and be deliberate about.

What I realize, after skimming some hex-crawl random tables and bottom-up design articles, is that those first seven hexes give me an incredible palette for a session zero. I use a framework or generator to put the biomes in the seven overworld hexes (and however many sub-hexes are in those), and then the details of the items immediately around the start point can be filled in by the players. Instant connection to the immediate environ, but maintained sense of danger and mystery. And also, the session zero format can give me a chance to get a few far-off places that the PCs have heard of, and then anchor them to distant parts of the map. It’s like Dungeon World’s “Draw Maps, Leave Blanks” on a massive scale.

Speaking of Dungeon World…I’m rethinking my ruleset choice. Again. With magic and the like kind of decided, I feel less wary about using something big and heavy and needing to adapt a lot. At the same time, digging into the overworld stuff makes me realize that I’m going to need a rules backbone that can support some level of detail without collapsing or getting weird on me. I’m not entirely convinced I’d need to give up on Fate, the scalability of it is immensely appealing with the huge range of things I’d want to be possible. That said…GURPS has loads of environmental rules, and I finally have a campaign where I know the level at which I’d want to interact with them. Having the TL be low enough that no one can have guns greatly reduces balance issues, and the sheer number of things I could imagine players wanting to do means that having the rules available for close to all of them would be amazing. I’d still need to  look into Powers and Magic and figure out the whole spirit thing, but I at least know where to start. The settlement issue is also still there, but after I read GURPS Low-Tech I’ll have a better idea of just how much of what I need already exists. There’s also a left-field possibility in the form of Zweihander, a game I kickstarted a while back. It’s dark fantasy and based at least mechanically on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The game looks really interesting for multiple reasons, which is why I kickstarted it. That said…I’ve been playing Dark Heresy (which is mechanically similar to WFRP) with my online group, and dealing with the mechanics up close I’m not sure how I feel about it. The game is percentile-based, and base stats give you around a 30-50% chance to succeed, unmodified. If that sounds whiffy, it’s because it is. This means that to build up to a “typical” task, you’re stacking a handful of modifiers to get to your actual roll. I’m not a huge fan of it in Dark Heresy, and when you ask me to compare it to GURPS, arguably my favorite crunchy system…I doubt that’s a comparison it’ll win. Still, it’s a hefty system with a lot of interesting stuff, so I shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand before I get to read it.

I’m very glad that I’ve placed at least one campaign between this one and now. Even without the effort of writing an entire overland map, this game will require a lot of prep. I still need to flesh out the magic/spirit system a bit, write some historical assumptions, and then in lieu of writing a map, write and/or adapt the random hex tables that will generate the sort of map I want to run. And among all that, I need to definitively choose a system to run the game in, and fill in the mechanical blank spots for my setting assumptions. It’s a tall order, but I knew from the beginning this was an ambitious idea. I’m also getting excited about everything I’m reading, which is a very good sign I’m heading in the right direction.

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