These Benighted States

I’ve been threatening to start up a Thursday night Roll20 game for a few months now, and I’ve finally gone ahead and done that. It’s set up as a sandbox hexcrawl in a “future past” setting, where magic entered the world and society fell apart, only to rebuild itself into a medieval fantasy world. I’m calling it “These Benighted States”, since I’m basing it loosely on US geography. Using a mix of my own loose knowledge of local folklore, a completely unbelievable extrapolation of the area as it stands, and USGS data (the National Land Cover Database and the GAP Land Coverage Data), I’ve put together a few hexes worth of starting area. That’s been more than sufficient for the first three sessions (which I plan to write up here over the next week – as I get caught up, I’ll be doing them after the games, as I do for the Barrowmaze games), though they’re planning on travelling to the boundaries of what I’ve come up with next session.

I’ve immersed myself in blog articles, forum posts, and Reddit threads for so long it’s hard to keep track of what inspiration came from where. A ton of what I’m using was cribbed from Alex Schroeder‘s materials, especially his Swiss Referee Style Manual and Halberds & Helmets. As much as I was tempted to work from the bottom up in designing the world, I was having trouble coming up with large-scale ideas that really got me excited, and the guidance to start small and work outwards seems to be working well so far. I’m running the game in B/X just as Alex is, and first level adventurers don’t seem the types to get caught up in nation-spanning adventures. Keeping the world small at this stage definitely benefits that. Really, all of the advice in that style manual is useful, and has really helped me get a handle on how I want to run the game.

One thing I wanted to avoid in this game is stale Monster Manual fodder, so rather than pulling straight from there, I’ve decided to mostly create my own monsters for the world. I haven’t had a huge need for it yet, but this article from Dungeon of Signs got me thinking of interesting ways to keep monsters fresh. Mike Evans has a G+ collection, Roll For Initiative, that has a ton of great monster images, which I pass to players as handouts during games. Verbal descriptions work well, but I was able to get a great reaction out of my group when I told them that these were stalking them through the woods, they sounded legitimately afraid. I’ve never been able to do that by telling them what they saw.

Another thing I’ve been taking advantage of is Zak Sabbath‘s hybridizing charts for relationships between settlements, creatures, and locales. I really like his take on creating a sandbox, but I have a hard enough time trying not to get too simulationist when I’m running these games that I know I’d try to find “logical” explanations for why there’s such a density of crazy-awesome things, and I don’t think I can pull it off. The hybridizing charts at least let me set up the sort of chains of dependency that I wanted to have in the game – settlements trade or are at war or are spying on each other, taxes get paid, people eat creatures and plants, things like that. It’s worked out pretty well so far, and the players are catching on to some of these connections already.

A problem that I’ve been running into has been the fragility of first level characters. In the aforementioned encounter, three of those monsters were able to catch up with the players and, in one hit each, killed three PCs. These are hardly the first character deaths these players have faced. Part of this is on me – the players tried dropping rations to slow the monsters, but the dice rolled against them stopping, and I was on the side of these creatures being out to kill, not eat. I could have let the players outpace these creatures, but being forest dwellers, I thought they should be able to move about the forest with ease. I gave them 1d8 of damage, given the seeming size and strength of those claws, and a few “lucky” rolls on my side of the virtual table had them dealing 7 or 8 damage, enough to kill even the hardier first level adventurers. I’m having a hard time coming to terms with the virtual dice being so deadly when the players aren’t doing anything obviously wrong, and I’ll likely work more on ways to mitigate this until the players level up.

Speaking of leveling up, the players haven’t had a lot of luck in collecting loot thus far. For the first session, I wanted to introduce them to old-school gaming with Tower of the Stargazer. All of the starting characters died, and the only survivor was the second character of the player with the first death in the game. The only loot he got out with was a book. Following that, misadventures with wandering monsters in the wilderness led to two more character deaths, and inside of a cave, a mimic took out another character. As a result of all of this, my plan of only rewarding XP for treasure frivolously spent isn’t turning into a viable strategy. Tonight’s session had the players wrapping up a plot thread, so I rewarded them with experience for that. In retrospect, I should have had them awarded with gold and treasure, but this was more convenient at the time and solved the XP drought. Before that, the characters had been dropping like flies and not gaining experience – not a great combo.

I certainly have some kinks to work out in the game, but generally, it’s going well. I’m enjoying it, the players seem to be enjoying it, and we’re making interesting stories together. At the end of the day, I call that a success.

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