Pathcrawl revised!

I invented the pathcrawl yesterday, ten years after Daniel D. invented it, although I didn’t know that until this morning. Daniel’s is more complicated, which I don’t like, but captures some nuance which mine didn’t, which I do like. I’m gonna smush them together.

Our basic tension is informed decision making versus freedom of movement. So my rules were simple to facilitate communication. Daniel D. adds complexity in his pathcrawl which leans towards freedom of movement, but is also interesting enough to incorporate:

  • Directions
  • Paths always lead places and always have interesting things on them.
  • Interesting thing generator: 1. Ruin; 2. Lair 3. Settlement; 4.Wonder ; 5. Hazardous Landmark; 6. Fortuitous Landmark. This would be even better as a region-specific d36 in my opinion.
  • Things are sometimes off the path! If they are, there is a branch that leads to it.

So, our new pathcrawl rules:

Paths always lead to pre-existing places and always have interesting things on them. Things are sometimes off the path! If they are, there is either a branch that leads to it, or it is perceptible from the path.

To identify what is along the path, roll 1d6: 1. Ruin; 2. Lair 3. Settlement; 4.Wonder ; 5. Hazardous Landmark; 6. Fortuitous Landmark. To identify whether a path continues, roll 1d6: 1-2. Detour to another path; 3-4. Shortcut to another path; 5-6. New path and new location.

There are four types of path:

Trails allow you to travel. Roads allow you to travel at speed. Conditions allow you to travel at speed but only with the right equipment. Rivers and scalable climbs are conditions. Directions allow you to travel at half speed, but only with the right skills. Maps and divine guidance are directions.

There are three types of terrain:

Impassable terrain cannot be travelled through. Mountains and rivers are impassable terrain. Lakes and oceans are impassable unless you have waterfaring skills and equipment. Obscuring terrain is unnavigable and dangerous. Forests and swamps are obscuring terrain. Deserts are obscuring without view of the sun or stars. Passable terrain allows you to travel freely. Hills and plains are passable terrain.

Travel is affected by these features:

Travel through passable terrain at half travel speed, trails at travel speed, and on roads at twice travel speed.

Conditions are impassable, except with their condition, or where they intersect with another path (for example at a ford). Unnavigable means roll 1d6 and exit via a random hex. Dangerous means random encounters are higher level and twice as frequent. Impassable means no individual can enter, without unique skills and equipment, or magical assistance.

My pathcrawl is taking shape. Clear, simple information, available to the PCs. Interesting endpoints and detours. Freedom of movement. This is fun!

Idle Cartulary

30th June, 2022


Wilderness walls and halls: Streamlining hexcrawls

Joel wrote this, about why he doesn’t prefer hexcrawls. Joel’s got some sense, and it made me think about what I don’t like about hexcrawls. Namely: As anyone who has travelled in the wilderness will tell you, the wilderness has walls and hallways. The wilderness is a dungeon.

Caradras: They’re taking a path!

You can’t just climb a mountain. Certainly not in full armour carrying weapons and treasure. You have to take a path. You can’t just cross a river. You have to ford one. Forests are impenetrable to those who don’t know the secret path. You cannot tell your direction when you cannot see the sky and are unfamiliar with the territory, rendering swamps, forests and deserts death traps.

On the other hand though, rivers and creeks are often easy to follow, given a boat, paths do exist carved by beast or person, and often roads exist paved and suitable for horse and vehicle. Plains are free to wander across, although grasses are usually long if grazing animals aren’t native.

Joel’s solution is a pointcrawl: Effectively making you choose to take either the Gap of Rohan, the Pass of Caradras or the Mines of Moria if you want to cross the Misty Mountains. You know what you will have t face for each! It’s an informed decision, with positive and negative consequences! Each route is tailored for the party!

The problem for me with this solution, is that I have to tailor these routes, and that it feels restrictive for the type of open-ended multi-player table I like to run. I’m thinking of a middle way, a pathcrawl.

When I make a hex, I consider the paths that pass through it, and the type of terrain it is. There are three types of path: Trails, Road or Conditional. Trails allow you to travel, roads allow you to travel at speed, and conditional paths are things like rivers that allow you to travel at speed but only with the right equipment. There are three types of terrain: Impassable, Obscuring, and Passable. You cannot enter impassable terrain, you are immediately lost in obscuring terrain unless you are familiar with the territory or have vision to the sky, and travel in passable terrain is as a trail.

While we can assume competent way finding from an adventuring party, most terrain is impassible and obscuring, and most paths are trails or conditional. Smart adventurers avoid impassible and obscuring terrain, unless they find or are shown the trail.

And we can use simple symbols or colours to communicate this information on the map; potentially blue or red borders, or trails being dashed and roads being unbroken lines. Obscuring and impassible could also be colour-coded, especially in a monochrome map, but could also have small accompanying symbols.

Obscuring and impassible, from the Noun Project

What this results in, is a map with difficult terrain almost everywhere, and adventurers who are loath to leave the path, and only do so with an ancient map, a guide, or specific directions. This feels more actionable with a simplistic ruleset than a typical hexcrawl, but not as bespoke as Joel’s pointcrawl.

I guess we need some rules. Lost means roll 1d6 and exit via a random hex. Impassable means no individual can enter, without unique skills and equipment, or magical assistance. Your game of choice should deal with travel speed, but do away with difficult terrain rules, because under these rules, all terrain is difficult. Trails are travel speed, and roads are twice or travel-speed-and-a-half. Conditional paths like rivers are impassable, except with their condition, or where they intersect with another path (a ford).

So, a five minute sketch reveals a a basic pathcrawl that could look as simple as this, assuming rather than showing that certain terrain is impassable or obscuring:

Or as complex as this, which with a little better graphic design chops I’m sure could communicate pretty clearly a lot of information very quickly:

Anyway, this is what I think a pathcrawl should look like. Less bespoke than a pointcrawl, but more wilderness-directed than a hex crawl, and with clearer rules for travel that the adventuring party can more easily understand.

Late Addition (30th June 2022): Daniel Davis did this ten years ago! His post is here! I prefer my approach, so I amalgamated them for the best of both worlds.

Idle Cartulary

29th June, 2022

Mentzer’s Dungeon

Frank Mentzer’s dungeon, remixed by Dyson Logos.

Sean McCoy recently posted an old perhaps reddit post by Frank Mentzer, talking about how he always improvises the same dungeon. Along with it, Sly Flourish wrote about the concept here. I think Sly Flourish missed the most interesting part though: Mentzer has sketched themes out roughly for the entire dungeon:

So it looked like this:

You wouldn’t call it a five-room dungeon, but you can definitely call it a five-theme dungeon. The key is that the themes are linked to the dungeon layout: We have a long hallway with off-shoots and a room for sharpshooters at its far end in the west, a looping, secretly-connected lair in the east. A deceptive pair of rooms ahead, filled with misinformation about what lies ahead, and if we take the long route we reach a temple or meeting room, with hidden treasure rooms and a locked exit to the north leading who knows where? And finally, our entry filled with graffiti hiding clues about what lies ahead. I like this. How can I simplify it? What are our five themes and what are their key nodes?

Circles are room sets, stars are secret room sets, dotted lines are connections, zig-zags are secret connections.

This betrays some of the complexity of the original dungeon map (~25 rooms and some Jacquaysing), but is sufficient for the analysis. For this structure to work:

  • There is an exit and entry room, each with one connection to one room set.
  • There are five overt room sets, each with two or three overt connections to other room sets.
  • For three of these overt room sets, one of these overt connections is a secret connections.
  • There are three secret rooms, each secretly connected to an overt room sets.
  • One or two connections link with each other, rather than to room sets.

So, let’s transmute this analysis into a procedure:

  1. Mark five room sets.
  2. Connect three of them with secret connections.
  3. Connect all of them two or three total times; connections can be with other connections.
  4. Add three secret rooms and connect them anywhere.
  5. Add an exit and entry room, with a connection to a single room set each.

And then, for each room set, roll once or twice on the theme table (honestly just came up with these without much thought, they could be better, or longer, or more detailed), and describe the set of rooms:

  1. Trap
  2. Home
  3. Worship
  4. Burial
  5. Flooded
  6. Worship
  7. Haunted
  8. Anger
  9. Library
  10. Burning
  11. Prison
  12. Rubbish
  13. Armoury
  14. Pain
  15. Joy
  16. Mundane
  17. Play
  18. Preparation
  19. Hidden
  20. Seeking

Now we have a dungeon creation procedure for quick pick-up dungeon creation! Shall we give it a spin? Having put no thought into the layout at all, here’s the map:

And generating up the 10 room set themes we get (once again, I’m not editing here) anger-trash, haunted-library, mundane-armoury, anger-burial, worship-prison, burning-haunted, mundane-joy, hidden-preparation, plus for the entry and exit, burning and trap:

  1. One of two braziers burns with an otherworldly flame, on either side of an etching of a door. Scratched on the rough, white stone wall in charcoal are notes scrawled desperately. …doors must shock…books are alive…Sherman was here…wear a dark cloak! …no weapons…Fireproof clothes! …disturb the bones.
  2. These interlinked rooms are full of the scattered bones of various beasts and people are piled among food scraps, green waste, and rusted metalwork of unclear source. The bones if disturbed will arise into shambling bone-things, raging that they were torn apart and from their resting places.
  3. Deep and spiralling catacombs are stripped here, formed into a makeshift library. Each of the books here are possessed of a spirit, which can communicate via its pages.
  4. A mausoleum, the catacomb is poorly stripped, but stored here are the most ancient texts and the rarest magic. The skeletons of those who brought them here are slumped by the door. One ancient warrior, buried sans skull, rages at any who disturb it, caring not for the books, but rather for its rest.
  5. Fearful weapons, arcane explosives, magic cloaks in large and giant sizes, stored here in case the hulking family needs escape. They are plundered from the catacombs and should be used only in fleeing them, for the spirits of the dead are angry and will pursue those who they find in their belongings.
  6. Worshippers mundane clothing, armour and weaponry is kept in this cloakroom, as the caged darkness does not receive armed visitors well.
  7. The catacombs here feature stone doors, all leading to an amphitheatre gazing down upon a massive copper bird-cage. At the base of the cage is deep, black water. Do not open the cage; it shocks to touch. The seats are full of unarmed worshippers of the caged darkness. Small rooms look down on the amphitheatre, dangerous if the worshippers reach their weapons.
  8. The sound of play and laughter. Draped with curtains, warmed with flames behind grates, and comfortable, a family of hulking creatures dwells here, with rooms for all their needs.
  9. Long, wide, columned halls are illuminated with living flames. They speak and reach out for you. They are not angry, only lonely; the last of those buried to imprison the caged darkness. Alcoves line the walls, yielding refuge and secret walkways.
  10. Giant copper doors shine and offer escape. They are shocking to touch.

That’s not a bad little dungeon, for 20 minutes work. I think I’d include the entry and exit in the initial connections in retrospect, because there are an excess of overt connections, and potentially add another secret connection to make up for it. But, for a first attempt, this is a lot of fun.

Idle Cartulary,

27th June 2022

Everyone’s a dragon

“Dungeons and Dragons, but there are ONLY Dungeons and Dragons. Every place is some variety of Dungeon. Every creature is some variety of Dragon.”

For real, this is how I prepare places and people, often while play goes on, on scratch paper. I discussed the fractal dungeon in a previous post, and here I’ll quickly talk about the everyone’s a dragon character sketch that I use.

Everyone’s a dragon in a fantasy world. I use this as shorthand, because dragons – think Smaug the Magnificent – are complex enough to be unpredictable, but simple enough for a child to understand. That’s the sweet spot I’m looking for for most of the people in my worlds, because I want it to be easy for the other players to think, in retrospect: Duh, of course they responded that way.

So, Smaug has:

  • An Obsession Accumulating, but never using, wealth
  • A Horde Gold and gemstones
  • A Weakness: The missing scale over his heart.
  • A Mask Magnanimous and witty
  • A True Self Jealous and petty

This works for any character and is pretty easy and quick to sketch in the margins, so long as I use the terms loosely:

Farmer Giles has:

  • An Obsession The sheep-raiding goblins at it again
  • A Horde Seventy-two silver-hide sheep and six daughters
  • A Weakness: Will accept no risk to his daughters, but for a fear of flying insects
  • A Mask Inept and galumphing
  • A True Self Brave under pressure, when his Horde is threatened

Here ‘mask’ is more what he appears and believes himself to be, having not been put under pressure to reveal his true self. I also try to imply a personality in here: I can picture Giles waving his fist at the silhouettes of the goblin raiders as they disappear over the horizon, but also standing his ground when he finally faces them, likely armed with a pair of shears.

Obviously this is not a perfect technique for sketching personalities, but I find this one evocative, easy to do in the margins, and means it’s possible for me to wing a character much more easily.

So, when I’m surprised by a place or a person, I simply treat it like a dungeon or a dragon. What are your tricks for easy improvisation with depth and potential for depth? Like, comment, and share, please!

February 15th, 2022,

Idle Cartulary

The fractal dungeon

For real, this is how I prepare places and people, often while play goes on, on scratch paper.

“Dungeons and Dragons, but there are ONLY Dungeons and Dragons. Every place is some variety of Dungeon. Every creature is some variety of Dragon.”

The Fractal Dungeon is my version of the the five-room dungeon (1), but I’ve largely scrapped the granularity of the original version. Instead, I have a [first] Impression and around four Features. The key thing is that these rooms need three things each: Description, hook, and twist. I try to keep them to a sentence each.

For the town of Valley Quay (I’ve been running a gender-bent Loft of Ravens for the past six months), the town is the first ‘layer’ of the fractal and my ‘rooms’ are the most important places and people in the town. I won’t write the whole town, but rather an example of an Impression:

The Gate

Description: A pale rictus grin with dull eyes is revealed through a hatch in a claustrophobic and mouldy gate.

Hook: Guards annotate and sketch your weapons, indicating attendance to festivals is mandatory.

Twist: Captain Claw has a bargain with Lady Danbury to trade unique weaponry for information; Burgomaster Vallison thinks it’s to track violence.

And an example of a Feature:

Winking Raven Inn 

One of two older gentlemen welcome you to a warm space where a rangy bard sings unusual ballads and two children under ten bring sweet-smelling stew and mulled wine to customers.

Wynn the Barkeep knows and tells secrets to lead heroes to their goal; Danyeel shushes him with a frown.

Wynn and Danyeel are shapeshifting spies allied against the Devil; they know everything about the people of Valley Key and nothing about upcoming dooms.

Now, we fractal Winking Raven if it becomes more important into Entry and four or so Features. We’ve already written the Impression, so we just need the rooms, each with their own description, hook and secret:

Zeno Vallison’s Room

Do not disturb hangs on the door. Musty and unkempt. Tomes are stacked high beside a makeshift desk, thick with dust. A white cat feeds from a bowl on the floor.

Zeno’s notes and books focus on demonology and breaking trapping curses. A locket hangs by the bed with a picture of Eleanor Danbury, Lady Danbury’s daughter.

Eleanor was body-swapped with the white cat when Zeno attempted to escape Valley Key. The Eleanor kept isolated in Danbury Tower is isolated because Danbury believes she was driven insane by Zeno.

Combine this with Zeno’s presence in a Taproom feature, and multiply it by four, we have a solid tavern. And it’s probably important to note that I’ve written it out more than I would have for myself. Mine would be more like this:

Zeno’s Room. Do not disturb. Tome with the face of a demon caps a stack concealed by dust. White cat. Locket of Eleanor Danbury, body swapped with cat. Body is in Danbury Tower. Danbury thinks Zeno drove Eleanor insane.

Conjured from nothing, in the margins, as it were. Which means the entire Winking Raven is five paragraphs, each paragraph an adventure.

Anyway, I think it’s a neat way to write locations. What do you think? Comment and subscribe! Next I’ll write a little more about the Everyone’s a Dragon method of characterisation that I use for similar, keep it simple stupid reasons. I mentioned it in Challenge of the Week #1.

1 I can’t find the original blog post for the five-room dungeon, actually, or I’d link to it.