Sunday, July 30, 2017

Further Obvious Thoughts on Wilderness

My prep for Dungeons and Discourse continues.  Also, I had lunch with one of my ACKS stalwarts a week or two ago, and have been re-reading some old posts (particularly this one) and some thoughts came up.

Topology - Jayquaying is considered important in dungeons, but not something you hear about much in the wilderness.  This is because the wilderness is "open" by default - you don't have to take any particular measures to provide multiple paths through it.  On the other hand, this abundance of paths can also be boring.  An inverse of jayquaying for the wilderness to restrict available paths probably makes sense.  Quayjaying, if you will.  Hard quayjaying is limiting available paths by impassable obstacles, soft quayjaying is limiting it by obstacles which are expensive to traverse.

Traps - Thinking about the resource game in dungeons, it's true that zap traps and trivial encounters aren't interactive or particularly exciting, but they perform an important function - putting chip damage on the party to keep them under resource pressure.  Seems workable in wilderness too - as simple as "if you sleep in the mountains above the treeline, all party-members take 1d3 points of damage from exposure unless you can find a cave", "every time you traverse a glacier hex, there's a 1 in x chance a crevasse opens beneath a random 1d4 party members, save vs paralysis or take 3d6 falling damage", or "if you sleep in a swamp, there's a 1 in n chance that your rations spoil".  In addition to grinding down party resources and providing tension, this helps make Land Surveying actually useful.

Specials - If you look at the dungeon-stocking guidelines, 25% of rooms have a "unique" or special contents.  Like traps, this is something I've largely neglected in my wildernesses to date, despite having quite a few ideas for this sort of thing.  25% may be high for a sensible wilderness, particularly a large one - 25% means that every hex has like 1.5 "unique" neighbors, which is very dense.  14-16% would mean that on average every hex would have a "unique" neighbor, which is still high but probably more reasonable.

Treasure - One persistent complaint about wilderness adventuring is "there's not enough treasure per game-time compared to dungeoneering."  Fair enough.  One way to boost this somewhat is unguarded treasure.  30% of trapped rooms have treasure in a dungeon; a reasonable parallel would be for a "trap" hex like crevassing glacier to have treasure at the bottom of a crevasse.  Likewise, 15% of "empty" dungeon rooms have treasure; no reason empty wilderness shouldn't, either.  Maybe it's a natural resource like rare wood or exposed metal ore; maybe it's actual treasure buried in a barrow mound that isn't haunted for once.  I expect you'd have to search a hex to find it, but that's OK - creates a resource tradeoff, time and rations for a chance of treasure.  This also provides endpoints for treasure maps.

Dungeons - Sometimes I think about abandoning the quest to figure out the wilderness game and just run dungeons all the way up.  Generally I don't like using dungeons at high levels because giants need a lot of calories and it stops making any sort of sense, but supernatural monsters are a reasonable solution to this objection (and wards can also explain why they're not out terrorizing the countryside).  Matt noted that dungeons do get old, and that he thinks this is not a great solution.  Reflecting further on this, the correct solution is fairly obvious - I need to put dungeons in my wilderness.  This is, of course, exactly what the damn manual suggests, but I've been too lazy for it in the past, in large part because the wilderness prep effort has been heavy as a result of large wildernesses with very dense lairs.  But, having figured those out, prep effort declines.  Dungeons provide high-treasure targets out in the wilderness, as well as a break from worrying about rations and overland movement and such.  Looking at page 235 of ACKS core, it suggests 3 large dungeons (6-10 sessions each), 10 small dungeons (1-2 sessions each), and 17 lairs for a 30x40-hex wilderness.  For a 10x10 wilderness, that's about a 25% chance of a large dungeon, an 84% chance of a small dungeon, and 1.5 lairs; lower density than I really want.  Given that historically I've gotten 6-8 sessions out of most of my 3-level, 60ish-room dungeons, I assume that what I'm building is on the low end of "large".  I could probably get 1-2 sessions out of a single-level 20-30 room dungeon, and could comfortably put three of those in a 10x10 microsandbox in about six hours of prep effort.  Then you drop rumors and these become places that players have to go find (as Alexis says - if you tell the players precisely where something is, they will go directly there.  If you tell them vaguely where it is, they will go everywhere.  And I want them to go everywhere if at all possible, because that's efficient use of my prep effort).

Homesteads - I was skimming Renegade Crowns the other day, and its system generates quite a few homesteads out in the wilderness.  Think Beorn and Craster.  These present a great, ambiguous opportunity.  If your players meet orcs, the first instinct is to fight them.  But if they meet hillfolk, it's hard to tell whether they're normal and friendly or cannibal cultists until you agree to join them for dinner.  If it works out, they're potentially great allies against beastmen, and at the very least a "safe and sanitary" place to rest and recover resources.  Homesteads might fall under a more general category of "oasis" features where replenishment of certain resources is possible; Rivendell's another example.

Level range - An observation I mentioned to Matt is that just as 1st level, 2nd level, and post-3rd level dungeoncrawling are all very different, it's possible that 5th, 6th, and 7th+ level wilderness adventuring are very different, with lower levels being much more resource-constrained and dangerous.  Got me wondering if maybe launching a wilderness game closer to 7th wouldn't be a bad idea.

On further reflection, I think that even if I executed successfully on all of these ideas, in an unmapped borderlands microsandbox with limited lair density, some route-blocking topology, "trap" hexes, unguarded treasure, an abundance of special features, three dungeons, and a smattering of homesteads, that would still be somewhat unsatisfactory.  Better than my previous wilderness efforts, and pretty close to my first ACKS dungeon, but still merely an open world rather than a living world.  The folks I've been talking to here seem big into Dungeon World and fronts and clocks lately, but I think something more up my alley would be "build a big list of NPCs who might do something that the players might care about, along with some Renegade Crowns-style internal conflicts between NPCs.  Every session, roll on the list, think about what resources they have at their disposal and what they want, and then something happens."  Might be NPC-vs-NPC violence in the background, might be something aimed at the PCs if they're on that NPC's shit-list, might be a job offer from that NPC.  But something happens, because somebody wanted something in the world and they've finally gotten around to acting on it.


  1. Every time you post something, I learn something and I am delighted. Thank you for thinking this through publicly because it helps some of us out here to think through it as well. And thanks for the links.

    Who is Matt?

  2. Thanks Scott! Matt's the fellow I mentioned at the beginning who's played in several of my games in the past couple of years; sorry for the ambiguity.

  3. I think you've touched on some pretty interesting things here, and there are two in particular that caught my eye...

    The first was Homesteads. I think Dwimmermount contains the seeds of a nice approach here, with its Dynamic Domains (Dwimmermount, ACKS version, pg.60). One could flesh out these Domains a bit more, particularly on the sub-Hex level, and voilà! Homesteads.

    The other thing was the point raised in your last paragraph regarding still feeling somehow unsatisfied with this clever, detailed, pre-made Wilderness you've created. The idea that things happen outside the direct view of the players has been around for a long while in RPG circles, particularly in open sandbox-ish games. Usually I've seen it referred to as "World in Motion," and it's worth doing some Googling on the term in relation RPGs... in my opinion it's crucial piece of long-term success in a sandbox game.

  4. Hm, I'm not familiar with the dynamic domains, as I do not have Dwimmermount.

    Yeah, doing things out of sight of players is something I've had trouble with in the past, in two failure modes: either I do everything out of sight of players and the world is utterly inscrutable, or I do nothing out of sight of players. Generally my campaigns gradually transition from the first to the second failure mode as players do stuff and my reactive load (in response to their actions) increases. I like the idea of having a world-engine / system for managing that sort of thing, but at the end of the day all systems are just more work.