10 April 2022

Hex Crawl pt.2

 In Hex Crawl pt. 1, I discussed the results of testing three different methods for determining the wilderness exploration experience for the hex crawl game I will be running. 

Aside from the method used to determine random encounters, I also want to have things like weather, adverse/beneficial events, site discovery, and foraging occur as well, all without the necessity of making several dice rolls and consulting an ever-increasing number of tables. 

The wilderness rules from Halberts & Helmets (hereafter referred to as "H&H") are simple and easy to use, but they don't help me with any of the exploration aspects I want to incorporate. The 17% chance of encountering anything (good or bad) limits their exclusive use as that would translate into days and days of travel with nothing happening unless I dictated (and I don't like doing that).

Moldvay/Cook B/X (hereafter referred to as "B/X") has more depth to the variety of encounters, but as presented they are "monster" encounters and so don't help with the exploration aspects, as well as proving to make travelling in the wilderness a near-certain death march for low-level characters.

I think the Traveller 5 flux mechanic can form the basis of the system I need. It can handle both beneficial and adverse results, and (good for me) serve as more of a narrative guide for a day's activity while exploring, all while making exceptional events less frequent (thus more memorable and potentially easier for my 1st level characters to deal with).

Using Flux

Rambling background

Before I outline the way I see flux working for me, I would like to explain a particular hang-up I have as a referee. I don't like dictating story beats, or guiding the narrative, or otherwise directing players. This has been my biggest hang-up when trying to run a game system like Numenera or other Cypher system games. I don't like the "GM intrusion" mechanic - it degrades the experience of what I would otherwise consider a great modern rules-light d20 system. I like to participate, as a player (of a different sort), rather than dictate. I prefer improvising when rolling randomly to determine an adverse or beneficial effect or situation, rather than trying to force a story beat or situation on players. I know, it doesn't really make sense in playing a game where I make stuff up for people. YMMV.

To use flux for my wilderness mechanic, I need to step away from details a bit and think more of the experience of a given day, as a whole. I have to direct things a bit more than I would normally prefer, but conversely I can tailor the individual day to exactly what the players are up to.

For example, presume the players have elected to spend a day foraging rather than travelling. In our game we've decided that players can forgo movement for a day, so that everyone can focus on gathering food or water or whatever. They have a base chance of 1 in 6 to gather 1D6 units of supplies), unless they are playing a thief in which case they have a 2 in 6 chance of gathering 1D6 units of supplies. The players can elect to do one roll for the entire group (using the highest skill), or break into smaller groups (each group using the highest skill), or even do it individually; it's all up to them to decide.

First, I have the players roll 1D6 - this is the "light" die in flux parlance. I likewise roll 1D6 (the "dark" die), and we determine flux. 

Example 1: Flux -1

(-1 to skill checks)

The players know today may not be a good day for this - maybe the weather is terrible, maybe someone is having digestive issues, or maybe their hearts are just not into it. Regardless of why, they know that their chances of success today are reduced. Only skilled characters (thieves) even have a chance.

Example 2: Flux +2

(+2 to skill checks)

Today is gorgeous - the weather is beautiful, everyone feels great, plants and animals are in abundance, even the water looks clearer. This is a great day to gather the supplies. 

Example 3: Flux -4

The players have had a restless night. There's been a lot of movement of some kind of creature or creatures in the area and maybe it's best to get out while they can, like all of the local wildlife (roll an appropriate encounter for the terrain). Or, someone is really sick from something they ate, and can't move. Or scavengers or vermin have eaten some of the party's supplies.

Example 4: Flux +5

Finding food or supplies presents no difficulty. Everyone can find whatever they need without making a check. In addition, one of the players has discovered a cave that holds the remnants of a couple of structures. They are solid enough that they can be treated as a safe area in the future. Investigating them might even yield some tools or artifacts from the ancient builders.

Example 5: Flux 0

Today is just a normal day for procuring food or supplies. No bonus or penalty applied. 

Summary

So, using flux in this way is less procedural than I would normally prefer, but I find myself excited by the potential of this during game play. I can apply the effects of a flux roll based on what the players decide to do, and they know up front what sort of day it looks to be. I can still use random tables to determine things like ruins or encounters, but I also have some flexibility in what to apply. We'll see how it goes!

Hexcrawl pt.1

 In a couple of weeks, if things go well, I will be running a hex crawl in a shared world with two other referees (Alex and Peter) who run dungeoncrawls.

Since we've already got two dungeon games, my wilderness game is not an intermission between travelling to new dungeons, it's about exploration. The starting area is largely unexplored - there is next to nothing known about the surrounding areas (I believe we're kind-of/sort-of using the Wilderlands of High Fantasy as a reference point, but we're located below map 18 so it is definitely a make it up as you go situation).

Background

Our shared game world is using a mix of Alex's Halberds and Helmets (hereafter referred to as "H&H", player rules(english and german) and referee rules) and original Moldvay/Cook B/X ("B/X"). I originally intended to run the hex crawl straight out of B/X, but I've had some difficulty reconciling that system with the style of game I will be running.

Our sessions are short - we have a two-hour time limit - and with three of us alternating on the same day of the week, we try to keep things simple enough so that people can jump right back in without a lot of recap or discussion.

Everyone picks a randomly generated character and hirelings from a list pre-generated list, and they all start at level 1

Alex has his own hex crawl rules in H&H, but they're a bit too "rules-light" for my needs; conversely, the B/X rules have some depth but are not overwhelming, but are either potentially amazingly deadly or a bit of a grind for higher-level characters. In addition, for either system I would need a separate method of determining whether players discover something - our world is being generated as it's explored, and I want to minimize the amount of content I hand-place on the map.

As all of the characters are level 1, I started thinking about how encounters would play out, so I simulated 14 day/night rolls using the H&H method, the B/X method, and using the Flux mechanic from Traveller 5. 

To make things even more challenging, there is no healing while travelling. Players can only recover hit points while in a settlement or other safe area. There are no clerics in H&H (they're just magic-users with a religious devotion), and no one is making or selling healing potions or concoctions.

I tested results by generating 14 day/night rolls and comparing the results from the H&H and B/X mechanics. For flux, the daylight roll was the light result, and the nighttime roll was the dark result. I did this test using the actual dice I will play with, not with a PRNG. I could've used the 2d6-7 method, which would've generated the same result.

Results

Halberts and Helmets

H&H uses one roll during the day and another during the night, with a table that varies by region. Using a clever mechanic, it can generate day or night encounters from the same table. The chance for encounters is a flat 1 in 6 for either time.

H&H generated 4 encounters across 14 days and nights. 

Moldvay/Cook B/X

B/X uses one check per day, unless the referee decides to do more. The chance for an encounter is determined by the local terrain, and there are tables and nested tables to determine the specifics of an encounter. I opted for a single check during daylight, and another for night.

B/X generated 5 encounters for the clear/grassland terrain (which in this game is not really present except around settlements); it generated 10 encounters for woods, river, desert, ocean, hills, or barren, and 14 (!) encounters for swamp, mountains, and jungle. Most of the terrain in the area fluctuates between woods/river and swamp, so that is a problematic result for a party of 1st level characters and their retainers, not to mention a *really* slow exploration game where the sessions are limited to two hours at a time.

T5 Flux

Flux is a simple mechanic - roll two differently-colored dice and subtract the darker color from the lighter. Alternatively, one may roll 2d6 and subtract 7. The result will be a number somewhere between -5 and +5, with a tendency for results to cluster near 0.

Flux generated 6 negative results (-1, -2, -2, -3, -3, -4),  6 positive results (1, 1, 1, 3, 3, 3), and 2 zero results.

Summary

To put it in game terms, using the H&H rules, and encounter would occur on the night of the 6th day, during the day on day 7, during the day on day 8, and on the night of the 13th day.

With the B/X rules and presuming the players stay away from swampy areas, they would have random encounters on the night of day 2, the night of day 4, the day of day 6, the day of day 10, the night of day 10, the day of day 11, the day of day 12, the night of day 12, and the day of day 13. Swampy areas would've been worse, with multiple day/night/day encounters.

That's just too many encounters for a game that takes place in 2-hour sessions, much less for a group of level 1 characters.

I think Flux will be a good fit for me and the game I want to run, but I'll have to explain why and how in the next post.


continue on to part 2

12 March 2022

Helmbarten und Halberts

 Alex Schroeder created a rules-light RPG loosely based on the principles of "classic" Traveller, the science fiction game - more specifically, the 1977 or 1981 versions of the so-called "little black books" with some inspired parts from the latest edition of Traveller. 

The German version of the game is called Helmbarten, and Peter Frölich and I helped translate that into the English version called Halberts. Four of us - Alex as referee, Peter, PresGas, and I - have been playtesting the included setting and the rules. Notes on our sessions and characters can be found here.

Unlike Paul Elliot's Mercator or Doc Grognard's Adventurer, Helmbarten is not a straight historical or fantasy adaptation of the original Traveller rules, and doesn't require having access to any of the Traveller books. Instead, it draws inspiration from what sets Traveller apart from other RPGs with origins from the same time - simple task resolution, easy character generation, and (perhaps the biggest difference of all) entirely front-loaded character advancement. 

It doesn't focus on, or even have rules for, gaining experience or item acquisition to increase character power during play - as a player you determine how much risk you want the character to undergo to continue to advance at the time of creation, and then you play that character.

To explain a bit: 

A character in Helmbarten doesn't advance in the fashion of D&D and the other RPGs inspired or derived from it. A Helmbarten character develops in 4-year blocks at the time of creation. At the end of each 4-year stint, the player determines if misfortune strikes the character, and (presuming the character hasn't died) determines if they want to continue in the same career for another 4 years, take a year off to attempt to switch careers, or simply begin adventuring at their current state of advancement. Increasing age and increasing likelihood of a stroke of misfortune are weighed against gaining new skills or increasing those the character already has, as well as the final material or social benefits the character will have once they start adventuring.

The lack of resource acquisition and management during play really makes Helmbarten play differently - you're not out to gain money or experience to improve your character's hit point total or gain the next feat, or learn new spells, and there's no tree of magic items to "climb" to ensure you have the proper power level or build. Your character's survivability (their three physical stats, combined) represent all of the "hit points" your character will ever have.

The default setting is a fantasy Alpine region with a Merovingian feel, but the framework for populating the game world and fleshing it out make it really easy to develop different settings. I myself am working on putting together a few "supplements" that are based around the Sea Peoples of the Mediterranean, an Avestan setting, and an ancient-era Fertile Crescent inspired setting.

As I mentioned earlier, the four of us have been playtesting.  I've become quite immersed in the setting, and I have particularly enjoyed the way the process of character creation generates a character and then gets out of the way of gameplay. No messing around with experience points or gold or consumable resource management - you just "run what you brung".

Our game sessions are short by modern conventions (roughly two hours every two weeks), and our "backstory" is comprised mainly of what we generated through random rolls on the career tables as we generated our characters, mixed with emergent backstory developing through our interactions with Alex's NPCs. It plays like it reads on paper -  a rules-light game system for a short series of adventures that everyone just has a lot of fun with. For me it's also been really immersive in ways I didn't expect.

Maybe it's related to the way that the character advancement is out of the picture once you've created a character. It could also be that I am playing with great players (Peter and PresGas), or that Alex is a fantastic referee, or that because our sessions are short we really focus on playing. It might be that this game really strikes on the key points of what I've always wanted from an RPG. I suspect it's all of that combined that has made this one of the most enjoyable games I've ever played in.