Sunday, August 8, 2021

Using Landmarks in Wilderness Travel

 I've been continuing work on my Jorune: Evolutions ruleset. Recently I've been working on wilderness exploration rules. One thing I've been thinking about, spurred on by some of Gus L's recent dungeon theory, is how different the role of "the map" is in wilderness exploration and dungeon or adventure site exploration. The size of the hexes means that the kind of navigation of a concrete space involved in dungeon crawling doesn't apply. There are some approaches to wilderness exploration that chase that level of concreteness by using "zoomed in" sub hexes that allow one to establish a more concrete topography, or that abandon hexes altogether, using a ruler to map movement across a fairly detailed map. Personally, this doesn't work for me for two reasons. 

The first is that it makes the construction of the map a daunting task. I now need to not only assign a type to the hex, and stock it with features, but construct sub-hexes with detailed topography and geography that allow me to locate those features in the hex. This basically ensures that I will never be able to prep a sizable map. 

But this is connected with a second issue about the point of navigating space. Why is the navigation of space interesting in a dungeon crawl? Having read Gus' reflections and run many years of location-based adventures in the retro-game style, I can think of three reasons. These don't apply to every location-based adventure in the mode of dungeon crawl, but I think the best feature all of them.

  1. Players engage in meaningful choice vis-a-vis navigation of the space as part of an economy of risk and rewards. They decide whether to push further at risk of random encounters, or whether to turn to the left towards the ominous clanking sounds, or whatever it might be. It sustains meaningful choices.
  2. Another way the navigation of space matters to dungeons is the way factions inhabit the space. We might think of this is the social dimension of space in the dungeon. Factions operate in different areas, which they often "hold", and they have interests in other areas, some of which opposing factions might hold, or which are otherwise inhospitable. This means the players enter into a current unstable equilibrium or conflict space that is intimately connected to the spatial layout of the location. People in one part of the space want things from other parts of the space, and the players can interact socially with this nexus of often opposed desires.  
  3. Another thing is that in a good dungeon, space is part of a puzzle to be solved. One figures out how to get from A to B optimally, for example, finding a quick way to lower levels, or learning how to directly access some place that could previously only be reached laboriously, or finding the way into some sub-level or hidden area. This is a satisfying achievement.
It's hard for me to imagine how trying to zoom in on a map of an appropriate size for extensive wilderness travel is a good way of capturing this. I'm not saying it's impossible, I'm just saying it would require some set of systems that it's hard for me to imagine. Even with "zoomed in" topography, you still probably never going to get to a place where players are making tactical choices about what route to take on each day of travel. 

But I think you can capture a decent amount of it if you lean in to the abstraction and "zoomed out" scale of wilderness travel. To get 1. you need to some regular way to represent risk and rewards trade-offs in wilderness exploration. In the dungeon this is provided in part by wandering monster checks, which happen at the level of the turn (or every 3 turns). It's important that it happens per unit of movement so that there's a tradeoff with exploring the map and hazarding encounters. In the wilderness you want something similar. 

So it's better if you don't have 1 check per day, but rather a mechanic that says: want to explore another hex? OK, roll the encounter die then. Similarly, it would be good to build in other choices that the parallel the dungeon like the choice whether to "search" for "hidden" features, i.e. explore the interior a hex in exchange for hazarding encounters. It's also good if you have mechanics for forced marching that require you tradeoff extra movement for acquiring exhaustion. 

Similarly, it's good if you have an encumbrance system that forces choices about what to carry, with rations and acquired loot being the obvious things about which you must make tradeoffs with adventuring gear. So you'll need rules for starvation and foraging too. It would be good to build in some choices about when you start looking to make camp, and probably about how good a camp you can get set up. 

Number (2), the social dimension, is easy. What we want is a hexmap as a social space of factions in opposition that want things from other places on the map. This is less a matter of rules and more about hex stocking. But we'll certainly want to use reaction rolls for wilderness encounters and have explicit rules about parlaying to make that option salient to players.

Number (3), about space as a puzzle to be solved is harder in a "zoomed out" wilderness map. What could it mean? Do we introduce a system of easy travel from some hexes to other hexes? Shortcuts built into the flow of the hexmap? That might work. But in this post I try something different instead, leveraging something unique to wilderness travel, namely mechanics about getting lost, to create an economy of known landmarks to navigate by. By creating archipelagos of landmarks to uncover in a sea of wilderness, the party can learn through exploration how to create routes from one destination to another and make tactical choices about movement. 

Instead of aesthetically pleasing maps that mix a medley of different terrain types, the system in this post works best for the exploration of discrete wilderness regions that is a single base type of terrain. Mirkwood Forest; The West Trinnu Jungle Lands; The Mermist Swamp. Hexes are differentiated not primarily by terrain type, but rather by landmarks that are treated as icons on the map. Furthermore, this is not a system for traveling across friendly lands or for one-shot journeys from point A to point B. It's written for play that begins and ends in a safe home base, from which multiple sallies into the perilous wilderness can be made, so that learning the terrain over time has major advantages for the group. It also will work best with a shared electronic map resources like Hexographer or Hex Kit that allows for easy placement and deletion of hexes, although you could certainly make it work with a few sheets of blank hexpaper too. 

A lot of the rules here are widely used. The innovation, I think, comes mainly in terms of the use of landmarks. But someone has probably already thought of something similar, so feel free to link below. Note that these rules presuppose 2d6 stat and skill checks, with a max positive modifier of +2 and max negative modifier of -1. 


The gear you carry on a mission is a resource. Jorune: Evolutions uses a slot based encumbrance system that tracks how many significant items you are carrying. It is important that you list items on your character sheet in the order of accessibility, with lower numbers being more accessible than higher numbers.

Clothing, jewelry or knick-knacks, and your pack do not fill slots. Armor, on the other hand, does occupy slots: (Light 2 , medium 4, heavy 6). Small items of the same kind can be bundled in 4s. Each brace of ammunition counts as one slot. Large or bulky items occupy two (or more) slots.

  • 10 + Str Mod + Size Mod items or fewer: unencumbered
  • 11-15 + Str Mod + Siz Mod items: encumbered
  • 15-20 + Str Mod + Siz Mod items: heavily encumbered
Animal Encumbrance:

  • Thombo/Horse: 20 Slots Unencumbered/21-25 Slots Encumbered/26-30 Slots Heavily Encumbered. Carrying a Rider=10 Slots. 
  • Bochugon: 40 Slots Unencumbered/41-50 Slots Encumbered/51-60 Slots Heavily Encumbered. Carrying a rider=10 slots.

Encumbered: Reduce travel movement by 1 hex. -1 to physical stat checks, physical skills, and combat rolls. Make a stamina check after a day of travel. On a 6- acquire one level of exhaustion (§2.7)

Heavily Encumbered: Reduce travel movement by 2 hexes. -1 to physical stat checks, physical skills, and combat rolls. Test stamina at -1 after a day of travel and at the end of each combat in which the character participates. On a 6- acquire one level of exhaustion.

Travel Speeds

All travel is represented by movement across a hexmap representing a wilderness region to be explored. Travel speeds are measured in hexes. There is base travel speed depending on your method of travel. Note that everyone must employ a certain mode of transport to benefit from the higher travel speed. Travel speed is not variable by terrain type, since we assume a single base type of terrain. In regions where movement is easy, hex sizes are assumed to be larger (3 miles). In regions that are harder to move through, hex sizes are assumed to be smaller (1 or 2 miles depending on how hard the terrain is). 

Base Land Travel Speeds:

  • On Foot: 5 Hexes
  • Bochugon: 5 Hexes
  • Thombo:  6 Hexes
  • Horse: 7 Hexes
  • Encumbered: -1 Hex
  • Heavily Encumbered: -2 Hexes

When the party has exhausted its movement on foot, the party may choose to continue pushing further. For each hex the party moves into, each character must test stamina or acquire one level of exhaustion. When mounted, the mounts make the check instead of the humans. For each exhaustion check after the first, roll a wound check for the mount to see if it dies.


It is possible to face exhaustion when encumbered, starving, engaging in forced marching, or hard labor. In such circumstances, test stamina. On a 6- you acquire a level of exhaustion. Each level of exhaustion fills 5 equipment slots. When the character surpasses extremely encumbered, their character can go no further without rest.

To recover a level of exhaustion, you must camp and have access to whatever can address your condition (sleep, food, etc.). Upon wakening test stamina. On a 7+ remove a level of exhaustion. Some forms of exhaustion, including exhaustion from wounds, cannot be recovered through camping.

Travel Roll

Upon entering a hex, one player makes a travel roll (1d6). The travel roll is a version of Necropraxis' Hazard System. It is heavily influenced by Ava Islam's reworking of the overloaded encounter die for Errant

  1. Encounter
  2. Sign
  3. Mishap
  4. Flora or Fauna
  5. Local
  6. Discovery
More on the travel roll in another post. For now, it's enough to know that each of these results will have their own table. We all know about encounters. Signs are traces that foreshadow an encounter. If an encounter or sign is rolled in the next hex, then there is an encounter with whatever left the signs discovered in the previous hex. Mishaps are little travel difficulties that accumulate if multiple mishaps are rolled. Flora and fauna are animal encounters or the discovery of limilates or other interesting plants. Local is some region specific event or phenomenon. Discovery means stumbling across some notable feature of the hex. 

Hex Features and Landmarks

Most hexes will have 2-3 features that are like the layers of an onion, representing the more and the less obvious notable features in a hex. (I'm influenced here by Hot Springs Island.) These features can be landmarks, resources, anomalies in UVG's sense, adventuring locations, and so on. Landmarks are the anchors of exploration. They generally represent easily identifiable terrain features that allow one to locate oneself clearly on the map. In easily navigable terrain, all hexes will have a landmark in them. In more difficult terrain, like trackless wastes or dense jungle, perhaps every third or fourth hex will have a landmark in it. 

Features are always discovered in a fixed order from most to least obvious. This means that in traveling across already encountered hexes, one will sometimes stumble upon something previously undiscovered. If there is no feature left to discover in a hex, then when a discovery is made, the Sholari announces that the hex is fully explored and this is noted on the map.

Note that not all keyed features of a hex are landmarks. This might be because the feature is more difficult to find in the hex or because the feature is found in multiple hexes. If they're not landmarks, they're things in the hex that are not good resources for navigating by. 

Exploring a Hex

The party may opt to use one movement to explore a hex. Doing this gives them a very good chance of discovering a feature of the hex. If there is a landmark in a hex, then the landmark is always the first discovery. In fact, the first search will automatically reveal any undiscovered landmark in the hex (no roll necessary). 

If there isn’t an undiscovered landmark remaining in the hex, the party rolls an exploration die to see if they turn up anything through their search. In doing so, they hazard an encounter. If they roll a discovery, then the party uncovers the next feature of the hex in order. Once again, if they roll a discovery when no features remain, the Sholari will inform the party the hex is fully explored. 

  1. Encounter
  2. Sign
  3. Flora or Fauna
  4. Discovery
  5. Discovery
  6. Discovery
There are some instances where a landmark is so obvious that it can be identified by anyone passing through the hex,  and so does not require a discovery roll to uncover.

Getting Lost

Each day the Sholari makes a secret survival skill check for the relevant wilderness type to see if they get lost using the wilderness survival skill of the mission member with the highest score. This is a 2d6 check modified by skill level in the relevant type of wilderness (untrained -1/trained +0/skilled +1/master +2). On a 6- they become lost. Since no one starts higher than skilled, and since becoming a master in a skill is not easy, this means that people will often get lost. (This is an intentional design choice that emphasizes the importance of uncovering landmarks, more on which shortly.)

If lost, the Sholari will dice to see in which hex of the day's travel the party goes off course. The Sholari will then roll 1d6 to see which way the party moves out of that hex. (Note there is a 1 in 6 chance that becoming lost has no ill effect if they end up moving in the intended direction.) All further moves after that point reorient the hexfaces so that the erroneous direction is treated as the intended direction. 

Suppose the party goes awry in a particular hex, intending to move north. This in the normal key:

Suppose the Sholari rolls 6. Instead of Moving N the party goes NW. For the remainder of the day's moves, the Sholari moves the party using this reoriented hex key for movement. 

Note that if the party stops traveling for the day before that hex comes up, then they do not become lost. 

While lost, the Sholari will refer to the hexes on the shared player-facing map as though the party were moving along the intended route, while tracking the real location of the party on the private Sholari map. If the party is lost on a second day, the Sholari will repeat the process, starting from the party's erroneous orientation and then swiveling the departing hex face once again by rolling 1d6.

The party can definitively realize it is lost in two ways. The first is by succeeding at a survival skill check for a new day after camping, representing the fact that they realize they were not quite traveling in the right direction the previous day. The second is when the party fails to reach a known landmark they expect to reach along their intended route. At this point the party may move using the regular hex key with any moves they have left from their current location and try to find their way back to terra cognita.

When the party enters a hex with a landmark they have previously discovered they stop being lost. As long as they have not been lost for multiple consecutive days, the party will be able to reconstruct their movements, and the Sholari may now tell the party the hexes the party moved through while lost on the normal map, and will place any landmarks they discovered along the way on the map.

While lost, if the party believes themselves to be in hexes they have previously explored that do not contain a landmark, they may try to locate themselves by exploring the hex to try to discover features with which they are familiar. In such circumstances, rather than revealing the next new feature of the hex, the Sholari should first give them features from the hex key they have previously discovered. If it's a unique enough feature found solely in that hex, then the Sholari may declare them no longer lost.  

If this sounds complicated, I provide an illustrative example at the end of the post. I promise that it's not as complicated as it sounds in play. Also, if it's not already apparent, discovering landmarks to tether your wilderness travel is utterly crucial in this system.


If the party wishes to camp in the wilderness, the mission member with the highest wilderness survival skill rolls a check for the group in their effort to find a suitable camp site. In inclement weather, this check receives a -1 penalty. For the result, consult the following table:

  • 6-: Uncomfortable camp: Party takes disadvantage on their grit roll and receives -1 on stamina checks to recover from exhaustion.
  • 7-9: Suitable camp: Party rolls for grit in the morning as usual.
  • 10+: Choose 1
    • Comfortable camp: Party rolls for grit (hp) with advantage in the morning and receives +1 on stamina checks to recover from exhaustion.
    • Hidden camp: As a suitable camp, but the party does not check for an encounter during the night.
Note that one may make a camp at any point in the day. If the group sets up camp and still has moves remaining, they may explore the hex or hunt and gather. They may also try to find a better campsite, expending a move to have a different player roll a second wilderness survival check in the hopes of finding a better campsite. The party may repeat this process as many times as they have moves.

Hunting and Gathering

At the cost of one hex move, and a roll of the travel die, the party member with the highest survival skill may test survival to hunt and gather. If the terrain is lush they may add +1. If the terrain is barren -1.

  • 6-: the party comes up empty handed
  • 7-9: one half the party (rounding up) need not consume rations for the day
  • 10+ no one in the party need consume rations for the day

Starvation & Dehydration

If when the party camps, they do not have sufficient rations for everyone then someone must go hungry, or the party must ration their food spreading the effects more evenly. If someone goes hungry they make a stamina check. On a 6- they acquire one level of exhaustion. On subsequent days they test stamina at a cumulative -1: on a 6- they acquire another level of exhaustion. Levels of exhaustion acquired in this way go away when the exhausted individual eats a full meal and camps for the night. Each meal eaten removes one level of exhaustion, at a maximum of one per day.

Rationing spreads the check to more people but gives a bonus to the check corresponding to the number of people with rations.

  • Two people splitting 1 ration: each checks stamina at +1
  • Three people splitting 2 rations: each checks stamina at +2
  • Four people splitting 3 rations: each checks stamina at +3


We're sorely in need of an example of travel using landmarks, and the procedures for getting lost. Suppose the Sholari's map of a certain region of the West Trinnu Jungle Lands looks like this (I used Hex Kit as the program):

Let's suppose that off the bottom of the map that white is grasslands, and so a change of terrain where the map ends. Keep in mind that the "blank" hexes each have their own keys with 2-3 features to be discovered, some of them significant. All that is represented on the map visually are the landmarks. Let us suppose through exploration, the players have uncovered this many of the landmarks on the map:

The players are now planning an expedition. They are marching on foot beginning in hex 0610. They are not encumbered and so have a base move of 5. They would like leisurely to travel on to the NE to hex 0710 with its unmistakable brown fens. Then they will continue NE into hex 0809 and 0909, before turning north to end up at the Great Gate in hex 0909, where they can take the extra time to make a nice camp or further explore the hex. The next day they're hoping to cautiously strike out  into terra incognita in the unexplored hexes around 0908, because they have heard that skull dungeon is somewhere to the east of the Great Gate. In short, the players are being cautious, using two known landmarks to navigate, and giving themselves time to make a nice camp and do a bit of exploration. Let us assume they also have one PC with them who is skilled (+1) in jungle survival. The following narrative focuses solely on movement and so I pass over the adventures they have along the way as a result of their travel rolls, encounters, and so on.

At the start of the day, the Sholari rolls a jungle survival roll 2d6+1=5, which means the party will become lost somewhere along the way. Since the party is only traveling 4 hexes today,  the Sholari rolls 1d4 to see what move they go off track. The Sholari rolls a 2. So the party moves into hex 0710 with the brown fens successfully, seeing the landmark they expect there. But with the next move, they go off track. The Sholari rolls 1d6 to see which they move with 1=North. So instead of moving into hex 0809 they move into hex 0709. They then continue straight into hex 0708. (They do not discover the muadra encampment in the hex, because they didn't roll a discovery on their travel roll and did not choose to explore the hex.) They then in their last move turn what they believe is N, but is in fact NW, ending in hex 0607. Arriving in the hex, they do not see the landmark they are expecting to find there (the Great Gate) and so realize they are lost. 

The Sholari no longer pretends they know what hex they are in. They tell the players they are lost and do not know what hex they are in. They deliberate about what to do. They know they are within 3 hexes of the brown fens 0710, and quite possibly within 2 hexes, depending on where they went awry. They have one move left for the day. They reason that they have enough rations for two days, and a very good chance of making their survival roll the next day (72%). Their plan is to explore the hex they're in to see if they can uncover a landmark or some feature that might be familar, and then make camp for the night. Their search discovers a feature rather than a landmark and some adventure is had before they make camp.

The following day, they make their survival roll and head due south from their current position, exploring each hex as they move through it. They move to hex 0610 and explore it, turning up a previously unknown features. They then move south to hex 0609 and explore again, this time finding something that sure seems familiar from their previous explorations--a small copse of a rare limite (a psycedelic herb), lit by the unearthly light of glowferns. The Sholari then reveals to them where they are in the map. The party breaths a sigh of relief and uses their last move to return to the brown fens in 0710 to deliberate about what to do next.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Google Plus Mixtape Track 02: Super Band Play Culture

I was on Google + for five years with you. We shared practices, theory, and bits of wonder, frozen starlight, passed gleefully from one outstretched elfin hand to another. I have learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons with you in rewarding and novels ways. But now Google + is gone. So I made you this mix tape. I think you'll recognize some of the songs. I hope you like it.

This is Track 02 of my google mixtape series. Listen to Track 01 here.

More than anything, I would say the OSR scene on Google+ was a play culture. People played a lot of games with one another. Since to be on OSR Google+ you had to be really into roleplaying, most everyone who played was also a high-caliber DM with a blog and a campaign (or two) of their own. Groups on G+ were like "super bands", composed entirely of the most engaged single member of other groups.
This meant that being a player allowed for immediate influence and transmission of techniques from one game to others. Someone who had an amazing experience in John Bell's Necrocarcerus or Miranda Elkin's Nightwick Abbey campaign as a player would turn right around and put those practices to use in their own campaigns.

Google+ had an excellent set of tools to enable this process. When G+ introduced "communities" that allowed you to moderate subgroups, this allowed for a centralized platform where people could communicate directly with their players easily. Since events were integrated with Google+, you could schedule a google hangout, slap a glorious picture and a description on there, invite all your players (or whomever you wanted), and even get a reminder for the event. It was also like having an easier to use campaign blog integrated with your social media scene, since you could post campaign hooks, session recaps, NPC pictures, and so on to your community.

Since folks in the OSR scene were mainly on Google+, it meant that all the amazing long-running campaigns of the OSR had their own G+ communities. Google+ wasn't just a social media platform; it was a storehouse of living campaigns. When Google+ was dying, I found it unbearable that all these intensely shared worlds of play would vanish. All the posts about NPCs, all campaign hooks, all the giddy post-game exchanges between players, all the houserules, all the downtime activities, all the richly imagined information about the world--gone in a digital heartbeat.

There was an app called Google Exporter that allowed you to download a community if you were a moderator. So I set about offering to export people's communities for them. In the course of doing that, I learned a lot about what different people were doing. In the final twilight hours, I picked a few campaigns and took the opportunity to interview players who had played in them. My two criteria for picking the campaigns, were these:

  1. The campaign had to be long-running OSR game. 
  2. It had to be a game where everyone who was playing knew that something special was happening. 

This topic is related to, but distinct from, track 01, which was about flailsnails. Some of these campaigns began as flailsnails affairs, slowly settling into a non-flailsnails mode as regular players starting coming back and the occasional new players rolled up characters from the campaign world. Other campaign began as  independent non-flailsnails campaigns, and briefly opened their doors to cosmic interlopers at the height of the flailsnails fad, before returning to their homegrown ways. Yet others came after flailsnails was more or less moribund, or simply never participated in the planes-hopping shenanigans. The role of flailsnails was, I think, as an accelerator of the play culture in general. It helped to build a pool of available players with connection with one another. One might play with someone else in a flailsnails game, and then get an invite to the non-flailsnails campaign they were starting up as a DM. Flailsnails built connections between people and greased the wheels for G+ play. But the point is, these established, long-running campaigns are not, in the main, flailsnails games. They are a different, if related, part of the G+ OSR scene.

Given the super band phenomenon, one thing I found when I started to look into it, was that you could trace influence from one campaign to another, in an evolving set of DMing practices, house rules, settings, and in some cases, publishing ventures. In fact, I've come to think of this super band play culture as the hidden infrastructure of the G+ OSR scene. A lot of the visible facades--blog posts, published rulesets, adventures, publishing outfits--were supported by these hidden networks of transmission. So, for example, David Lewis Johnson's Gathox Vertical Slum, a visible product you could buy and consume, was invisibly influenced by the fact that Johnson played in Robert Parker's Savage World of Krül campaign. Similarly, Gus' HMS Apollyon Player's Guide was influenced by the experience Gus had playing in Brendan S's experimental Pahvelorn campaign, which led Gus to rewrite entirely the rules for his HMS Apollyon campaign. What you, the DIY enthusiast or consumer, see is the end product of a fermenting process that begins with experience as a player in other people's games that often passes through the author's own campaign, finally crystallizing in the public sphere as some numinous object.

In the next few tracks on the Google Mixtape I will be talking about these games in groups of influence. We're going to start with perhaps the best known Google+ campaign: the Hill Cantons. In later tracks we'll branch off into less well-known territory. I couldn't be more excited to tell you what I learned about these glorious G+ campaigns, many of which you've probably never heard of, even if you were on G+. But they were all influential in their way, and tracing the lineages is interesting.  Here is a preview of future tracks on the Google+ Mixtape. I may add some tracks if I get the chance to interview some more groups.

Track 03: The Hill Cantons
Track 04: Savage World of Krül
Track 05: Swords of the Inner Sea
Track 06: Pahvelorn
Track 07: HMS Apollyon