There are things RPGs—especially D&D—do really well. Usually they involve creating fun and visceral combats. You can basically look at how much real estate combat takes up in any RPG book and come to the quick realization it’s the focus of most oft them. But other things are little more than rough outlines where the GM is often going to have to pull a bunch of tricks out of his or her hat to make it fun. One of those things is overland travel and exploration.
While games usually deal with this in a fast and loose sort of way, often players do not. For instance, last year I designed an exploration session for my D&D game where I gave the players a map handout of a new place to explore—an arid wilderness with a few settlements and a far off adventure site they were supposed to travel to. The map had roads, settlements, and forbidding terrain. I imagined the players would wind their way down the road, travel through the settlements, and make it to the adventure site. I created a group of encounters at settlements along with a number of wilderness encounters I could draw upon if the players surprised me and stayed of the road for parts of the exploration, or I could use for “random encounters” along the way to build tension. Players will always surprise you.
But this group really surprised me. They took the path less taken and trudged on to every arid open space they could, for reasons that often baffled me. They didn’t want to go to the settlements at all. In fact, it almost seems they were really testing both my patience and my ability to ad lib. No, it didn’t seem that way, that’s exactly what they were doing. They were gaming the map and testing the DM. Lucky for me, I made plenty of the potential random encounters. I was on the run for the entire session constantly trying to keep up with the player’s flights of fancy, and though the session was fun, I was definitely not on my A-game.
It really bugged me too. I wanted the exploration of this area to be fun and exciting. I wanted them to make interesting decisions, but I didn’t want to have to detail every little part of the game or to breathe life into the wilderness. I wanted the players to be challenged; I was too busy running the game to be the one who was challenge. I could make a skill challenge, and I wanted something skill challenge like, but I was getting to the point where the skill challenge formula, as mutable as it was, was becoming old hat. I wanted something new. Something fun. Something…well… “gamey.”
That’s when I remembered Outdoor Survival–or at least the promise of that game. While I don’t think that game is the best game in the world, and I realized that Gary and Dave were just using it as an outdoor map for their early games, there was the spark of something there.
The thing I liked about the game is that it simulates the uncertainty of overland travel into new vistas while traveling on foot or horseback. The world really is a different place without maps, roads, or any idea of where the hell you are going. Even in our world of satellite maps and GPS software people still get lost in the wilds. In the Northwest, there seems to be a news story at least once a month, if not once a week, where someone gets lost in this stretch of wilderness or the other. Now imagine you are living on the frontier. Beyond those points of light everything is uncertain. That’s the sense of wonder, uncertainty, and danger I wanted to create.
My biggest quibble with Outdoor Survival is that it puts the randomness in the wrong direction. At least for my purposes. In Outdoor Suvival you roll to see what direction you can move. I wanted to give players the choice of what direction they could move, but the randomness (or the illusion of randomness) came with exactly what was beyond that next horizon.
So I went about creating that game—a game that I based on the overland travel assumptions of 4e, but something that just about every RPG could actually use. I started with some cardboard hex tiles. Each tile represented roughly 5 miles of terrain.
The hex tiles allowed me to create a modular play area, so that the GM could create just about any map they wanted in advance, or they could actually have the players build the game world randomly through their movements and the flip of tiles. Players had so many actions they could accomplish within a day, but had more control of the actions than Outdoor Survival game them. Movement wasn’t the only action. Because sometimes being outside was all about the conservation of resources and reconnoitering the surrounding landscape, they could use actions to forage, look for shelter, and scout. Some tiles made this easier than others—including the ability to do this without taking up actions. The particulars of the terrain just gave them natural advantages toward performing those types of actions.
Of course, just like the wilderness, some tiles held dangers. Monsters and hazards lived and carved territories out in the lands beyond civilization, and some tiles replaced the old traditional random encounter tables—or even supplement them if the GM preferred.
Lastly, it’s not just terrain that hampers exploration, the elements should be a part of this little mini-game While I loved those old weather tables, like the ones in the old World of Greyhawk boxed set, like the tiles I wanted something more modular and more player interactive. So instead of tables, I made a weather deck. Each day the players would draw from the weather deck, and depending on the severity of the weather drawn, it could affect the overland actions that the characters could take.
So how did it work? Pretty darn good. surprisingly good for a first iteration. I tried out my first prototype on the same group that gamed my map, and they were both engaged and challenged. The first prototype was a set of tiles made for a glacier section of my game world, and had a lot of harsh environmental challenges that a group that didn’t take the Endure Elements ritual was sufficiently challenged to overcome. One comment around the game table was “let’s find a nice warm dungeon filled with critters, because roaming around this glacier is killing us!” That gave me the impression that I was moving in the right direction. That first prototype had its kinks, things that only playtesting can find. It was overly complicated, which made the “random” encounters harder to design, and made the resource gathering part of the game a little too techy, but the problems were fewer than I expected. The exploration game had legs.
I simplified and fine-tuned the game for my second prototype, and unleashed it on the rest of the NeoGrognard group and some friends, and reactions ranged from positive to extremely enthusiastic. Right now, I am working on the third prototype of the game—once just called the exploration game, now dubbed Hexploration—fully codifying the rules and creating something that can see a wider range of playtest.
If things go as well as they have been, next thing I need to do is figure out exactly how I can produce large quantities as cheaply as possible, and figure out how to distribute it. I’ll let you know how that goes.