Thursday, May 8, 2014

ACKS Postmortem Eleventy-One: Wilderness Encounters

Tim and I were discussing the turnaround time on ACKS adventures - the time gap (in real life) from when you realize you're done in the dungeon and it's time to go home to when you're back at the mouth of the dungeon ready to kick some butt again.  Tim opined that the turnaround time was long and painful after a crappy run with little treasure, and this was certainly a valid complaint; being chased by goblins all the way home is somewhat exciting when you have treasure to show for it, but rather disheartening when all of your encumbrance is used just carrying the bodies of the fallen.  But Tim aimed this complaint at ACKS, arguing that it is a systemic flaw - this I think is incorrect.  No, the long turnaround was a result of an error in my worldbuilding, and in our reading of the wilderness encounter rules.

Several errors, actually.

First and foremost: putting the dungeon(s) several six-mile hexes from town.  I recall it being something like a day's hike each way.  One consequence of this design was that anyone who came down with a mortal wound that needed healing within a day was probably screwed; you weren't going to be able to get them back to town in time, so it came down to party resources, which were typically lacking on the healing front.  A "raise to 1 HP within a day" wound was just about as deadly as a "raise to 1 HP within a minute" wound.  A second consequence of this design was that you were likely to get a wilderness encounter either on the way out or on the way back.  For low-level parties, this is bas news.  These dungeons were aimed at 3rd-5th level parties, who might've had enough resources to win a hard wilderness fight, but not to then follow it up with a successful dungeoncrawl.  As a result, wilderness encounters on the way out were likely to result in calling off the expedition (and then having to do turnaround again), while wilderness encounters on the way home were liable to result in TPKs (never actually happened, but there were a couple that definitely could've gone that way without some clever lateral thinking by players).

The random encounter problem could've been ameliorated if I hadn't made another pair of errors, though.  One of these was a worldbuilding error, the other a rules comprehension / inference error.  I wanted most of the campaign area to be borderlands, for flavor purposes.  As a result, I mucked with the concentric rings of civilization around the large towns out away from the rivers and coast, houserules that they generated borderlands rather than civilization.  This resulted in rolls not on the relatively-merciful Civilized wilderness encounter table (which is mostly humans), but instead on Desert, Hills, and Swamp tables, which are mostly orcs and purple worms and wyverns and such.  As a result, the individual wilderness encounters were more deadly than they should've been, given the proximity to town (though it was pretty funny when they lured the wyverns and giant scorpions into crossbow-shot of the city walls for the militia to deal with).

The rules-comprehension error related to the frequency of wilderness encounters in civilized terrain.  This one is sort of ACKS' fault; as Alex has explained on the autarch forum, it's technically covered under the domain rules for monsters wandering into wizard-built dungeons.  It's not the easiest-to-find place.  But!  Now we know, that in cizilized terrain you only roll once a month, in borderlands once a week, and in wilderness either once a day or once per hex travelled.  So we were really overdoing wilderness encounters, even for borderlands.  I think that borderlands would've been survivable with their usual encounter tables, provided that encounter frequency was a factor of seven lower and based on time travelled rather than distance.

Rather than a third-level party meeting an army of skeletons on their way to their first dungeoncrawl, and a pair of fire giants on the way back, you're supposed to start within the bubble of relative safety surrounding town, making expeditions to nearby dungeons, and only starting travel outside of civilized / borderlands regions when you're high enough level to deal with the threats inherent in those regions.  At wilderness level, I'm not sure there's a good way to avoid turnaround time as a factor in play; dangerous travel is the name of the wilderness game, and such dangerous travel is inconsistent with reducing time from retreat to reentry of the dungeon.  But I think that's OK; just another "play changes over level" sort of thing.  By the mid-levels, you don't need to rely on town as heavily anyway.  You have the cash to bring healers with you; after all, you were going to bring mercenaries to guard the horses, so why not just add some medics as well?  You have Create Food and Create Water, so you can reduce the amount of supplies you need to carry per day and perhaps live off divine favor indefinitely for a small party in dire straits (also Tim - this is your fast-mode ACKS.  Create Food and Water, Teleport, and similar spells that just cut out the annoying bits).  You can bring a portable shrine for your cleric who can cast Restore Life and Limb.  This is starting to look more like an armed camp outside the dungeon than leaving a handful of men-at-arms standing in the open with your mounts, isn't it?  If it's a big dungeon and you're going to be back, it might make sense to build some more durable fortifications than basic trenches; the mercenaries were complaining about sleeping in the mud anyway.  And if you're there long enough and doing construction, you're going to need a reliable food and labor supply.  And the mercenaries are grouching about lack of women and booze again...  Wait, the lizardmen from the next valley over have been stealing our tavern wenches?  Unacceptable!  We better go take them out.  Maybe clear out the spiders that have been eating out cows too...  Oh crap, the dungeon's tapped out.  Well, I guess we could tell everyone to go home...  or charge them money to stay?  That's ridiculous, Thief, but just so ridiculous that it might work!  And so a domain is born.  A party-shared domain.

But I digress.  In summary - as I have said before, the things that went wrong with my ACKS game of 2012-13 were largely my own fault.  I also recant of this post - turns out surviving in ACKSworld is a lot easier than we thought, as long as you stay near population centers.


  1. The one thing that I'm uncertain about once-per-week or once-per-month is that I'd think it would leave my borderlands feeling empty - I suppose it's just less work than having different encounter tables for the different settlement levels?

    I'm tempted to try something more like a d6 table, where 1-5 are patrols, merchants, farmers, etc, and 6 is a roll on the next-sparser-table.

    1. I agree that these might feel a little low; when I was discussing these with Tim, I guessed at once a week in civilized and was unsure about borderlands. Not sure if that's too frequent? It's a tricky balance to strike; maybe in civilized a 3/4 chance of a mundane humans encounter and a 1/4 chance of a monster or armed men encounter each week? And then in borderlands, yeah, 1/6 or 1/8 rolled each day would approximate a weekly roll for monsters without removing frequent encounters with humans. Or one could assume that encounters with peasants happen regularly and aren't noteworthy, which I guess is what the tables suggest.

    2. I assume the system chooses to focus on encounters which have the potential to be interesting, as opposed to going for a complete simulation.

      What I would do is have a table to uninteresting things for players to look at if they stop somewhere (separate from encounters). Things like: small farm, prairies, a big hill, abandoned campfire, old quarry, crashed alien spaceship

    3. Very reasonable, Tim, but the results on the Man table are already interestingmans, not peasants. Mans like bandits, merchant caravans, and other adventurers, and one would expect at least the merchants and other adventurers to be encountered more frequently in civilized lands than outside of them.

    4. That's a good point, you would probably be running into arbitrage merchants all the damn time... Except that would attract bandits, which would discourage people from becoming merchants, which would discourage people from becoming bandits...

      Perhaps this is the equilibrium point of the bandit/merchant eco-system?