Let’s Build A Campaign Setting: How Will This Thing Play?

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Over the past couple of months I’ve laid out a plan for what I want this campaign and setting to look like. I’ve developed an over-arching story, and I’ve begun thinking about the kinds of locations that the party might encounter. I’ve even begun to split the whole campaign up into adventuring days, deciding what each individual adventure module might look like.

So far I’ve been thinking mostly in terms of “big picture” stuff, but it’s time to start drilling down into the details. It’s all well and good to say “the party will arrive on the island, help to develop a settlement, discover that they’re monsters eating the flesh of an intelligent indigenous species, and ultimately ruin a ritual that was intended to keep a sleeping elder god imprisoned”, but what does that actually look like at the table? How does that fit into 15-17 levels of play and ~35 adventuring days (which, at a minimum, is 35 game sessions – nearly a year of play if you assume a group given plays once a week).

Because I’m building an entire island, this isn’t quite as simple as just writing a whole lot of adventure modules intended to be strung together. That would be putting the players firmly on a railroad, and I don’t want to do that. I want to encourage exploration, to reward exploration, and to make sure that exploring for the sake of exploring uncovers secrets and answers mysteries that will keep the plot moving forward even if they aren’t necessarily interacting with that main storyline directly. Every good novel or movie contains B stories that feed back on and inform the main A story. I need to seed my setting with those kinds of stories, so that no matter what the party do they learn things about the island and about the events that are developing there.

This means talking about some mechanics, and beginning to lay out exactly how this thing is going to play at the table. Without that knowledge, it’s impossible to know what I need to build – especially as one of the design goals I laid out in the first entry in this series was that I don’t want to build anything that won’t see play.

We’ve talked about hex crawls in the past. In that post I said that I didn’t necessarily want to build a hex crawl, but instead to use those tools to ease the design process of the adventure and the setting. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, though, and I think I need to revisit hex crawls and look at how the campaign might work if I simply build a hex crawl like I talked about at the beginning of the project. (Not that there’s anything “simple” about building a hex crawl).

One of the things that’s put me off using hex crawl mechanics is simply that they hearken back to an older style of play, one that’s less proscriptive about what the players do and where they go. It’s a much more freeform style of D&D, one that will see the players get lost and miss things and struggle against random encounters that don’t really add anything to the game. Personally I really love that style of play, but I’m well aware that I’m building this for a modern audience who expect something of a more streamlined game. If I were just building this for myself and my own group I wouldn’t particularly care, but since this is meant to be a commercial project I need to be aware of the way the game looks now and try to update things to fit.

Luckily, much of that work has already been done for me. The new D&D ‘storyline’ Tomb of Annihilation has just come out, and with it a chance to see how Wizards of the Coast are handling hex crawls these days.

Looking through the book, it actually appears that they haven’t changed much. Many of the classic elements of running hex crawls are in place – the players are given a partially filled map of the area, they navigate through hexes each day with a chance to get lost, and they run into random encounters. It would actually be relatively easy for me to simply take those standard rules for hex crawling and drop them into my setting, building the campaign with that kind of travel in mind.

My big sticking point with traditional hex crawls is random encounters. I really, really hate random encounters.

In traditional random encounters you have a table that you roll on, usually filled with ‘wandering monsters’, and if you roll a result then those monsters attack the party and a fight happens. I really don’t like combat for the sake of combat in my games. It’s the equivalent of filler tracks on an otherwise good album, or those mid-series clip episodes of a TV show that do nothing to progress the plot. I feel like if you’re making your party fight because there’s simply nothing else for them to do, then you’ve gone wrong somewhere.

The easy solution to this is to remove combat from random encounter tables. Instead, we could fill them with interesting locations and discoveries that the party can stumble across. This doesn’t work either, though, since what you end up with is a map that’s absolutely filled with ruins and caves and towers and weird stone circles and enormous dead constructs and… etc. etc. You end up with a game that looks like the map of any EA/Ubisoft/WB Games ‘open world’ video game, where you can’t move without stumbling over something. The game becomes so saturated with sidequests and things to discover that, perversely, all of those discoveries start to lose any kind of meaning.

I’m still not sure exactly how I’m going to handle random encounters. I need to strike a balance between discoveries and combats, and I want to make sure that any combats I do include on those random encounter tables are somehow well-designed. I like my combats to make use of the environment, for the enemies to use appropriate tactics, and for it to be more than simply “roll dice until dead”. My other concern is with making sure that the party don’t simply wander out into the jungle and fight tons of things until they level up.

That will all come later, once I’ve fully fleshed out the map of the island, but it’s good to keep that in mind while I’m designing.

As for the navigational parts of the hex crawl, I’m actually pretty happy with the way they’re presented in ToA (and they’re not much different from the traditional mechanics of the hex crawl). In short, each day the party appoint a navigator. That navigator makes a Wisdom (Survival) check (or, ideally, the GM makes it for her), and on a success the party knows exactly where they are. On a failure, the GM rolls 1d6 to dictate which side of the hex the party exits on, and the party only reorient themselves once somebody succeeds on one of the navigation checks. It’s simple and easy to run, and I see no real reason to change it.

One of the other things that ToA – and plenty of hex crawls, but we’re talking about the newest one here – does is to include the effects of weather on the party. This is something I’m going to include, too, because nothing sets the tone of an exploratory campaign quite like weather. Pathetic fallacy has existed in literature for hundreds of years, and for good reason.

The caveat here is that I don’t want weather to detract from the gameplay. Although I want the party to feel at times like the constant rain – or whatever – is making them miserable and making it harder to get to places and do things, I don’t want to make it impossible for them to make progress without good reason. Stranding them on a sandbar in the middle of the ocean, with the mainland in sight but unreachable, and some horror or another crawling up out of the dunes to eat them? That’s fine, and fun. Making them spend a session huddled in a cave waiting for the storm to end? Not fun.

This is actually fixed very firmly in my mind right now, because I’ve been playing a lot of Breath of the Wild recently. I absolutely adore that game, but there are some elements of it that immediately sap all my enjoyment of it. Weapon breakage is one of them. The other is the constant rain.

Don’t get me wrong; I love weather effects in games, and I love that they have a tangible effect on gameplay, but I hate that as the game goes on there’s no real way for the player to mitigate them. Breath of the Wild is built around climbing and exploring – but when it rains, you can’t climb. At all. And, as far as I can see, there’s no piece of equipment or special ability that ever changes that. There’s no real way to know when it’s about to start raining, and no way to know when it will end, and if you’re halfway up a cliff when it begins you’re screwed. The only option is to drop down and wait the storm out, or to fast travel away and come back again.

I’ve spent hours – literally, hours, at a time – in that game huddled under an outcropping on a cliff waiting for the rain and the lightning to stop so I can get to the shrine a few feet above me. In many of those cases it’s been while I was exploring a new region, which meant there were no convenient fast travel locations nearby. I might have already spent an hour slogging across dangerous terrain to get there, using up my resources fighting things, slowly making progress towards my goal only to be thwarted by weather. It’s a crushing feeling, getting so close and then having to make the decision to either spend an hour in real time doing absolutely nothing when I should be playing the game, or else to go do something else and try again later with no guarantee that the same thing won’t happen. (And, in my experience, the same thing usually does happen).

It’s my opinion that game mechanics should work in service to a player’s enjoyment of the game. If the mechanics actively make the player want to stop playing the game, then they’re bad mechanics. I’m not inviting you to tell me why I’m wrong about weather in Breath of the Wild; frankly, I’m sick of people telling me that I’m wrong to not enjoy that part of the game every time I mention it on Twitter. If you enjoy it, that’s fine. I don’t. And I’m going to keep the way those mechanics make me feel in mind when it comes time to decide how I’ll deal with weather in my campaign setting.

Of course, I’m thinking this through a little too much. In D&D it’s easy to simply narrate the misery; to say “the storm rages for hours, and all you can do is huddle for cover until it passes”. The players themselves don’t have to spent half a day doing literally nothing. The difficulty comes in designing a system that will make the players feel some of that misery without making them want to rage quit the game.

So, there are a few discrete systems I need to design for this project. As we’ve discussed, there’s weather, and there’s random encounters. The third system I haven’t touched on much so far, though I have mentioned it briefly in earlier posts in this series.

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