deriving the hex crawl

The hex crawl is a classic supporting structure for role-playing games. Many of my most memorable early experiences with Dungeons & Dragons were hex crawls, and the crawl was probably a bigger factor in their success than the D&D part. But let’s look at what a hex crawl ought to do by (like with the ranger) starting with some suppositions and deriving the technology.

So a few interesting things are true about the hex crawl: there are hexes (no more about this), the player side of the game doesn’t know what’s in those hexes until they enter or get adjacent to them, and something is interesting about each hex even if it’s just the terrain.

Let’s start with the “not knowing part”. This seems essential to me and I think it ought to play a part in defining the kind of adventure that takes place in a hex crawl. Let’s say I want to get from point A to point B in order to accomplish something at B. Obviously what I do is buy a map or a guide. I am not going to strike blindly into the wilderness if I have any other options. And I’m probably going to take a road which also implies the presence of maps or at least good directions. So this is not that.

Why would I strike out without a map?

There is no map.

Why no map? Why are we in this predicament?

Why not? Here are some possibilities:

No one has been there in a thousand years. There are stories about very roughly what is where but no one really knows. This is new territory.

So you might keep a map as you go in order to get back safely. You might use it as a predictive tool (if the ref’s map is rational enough) to find rivers and mountains based on gradually revealed changes in terrain. But mostly, since no one’s been here, you might be doing classic explorer stuff: making a map so others can make this trip more safely in future. When you find Point B, you will have one possible route there.

This last is pretty fun: if you find a very difficult and shitty route, you will be motivated to improve it, to find a better path. Otherwise the next person with the same idea might make a more valuable map.

For this to work, the map has to be fairly rational. If I hit plains and then hills, I should rationally predict mountains. If I move from dry to wet, I should expect a river. If I’m in the plains I can probably see cities and mountains on the horizon. If I find a road, it’s probably on territory much easier to build a road on than surrounding territory. I want players to be able to make rational predictions based on what they’ve found since they are trying to map an exploitable route without just randomly walking it.

Maps are illegal. Someone has maps but they are very protective of them and sell them for outrageous prices. Copies are dangerously imperfect and worse than no map at all.

Most of the above applies except now what you’re doing is probably illegal — not only are you lost in the wilds but two other things are true: some people aren’t lost (they bought maps) and someone probably wants you to stop mapping.

The land has recently changed. You might have a map but it’s wrong. What happened? I’m not here for that — you can already think of a thousand zany things.

You could be mapping this newly changed place in order to find routes through it, as though it were virgin territory, but really this problem demands another kind of adventure: figuring out why it changed. And you’ll have to cope with the fact that huge magical changes to the landscape don’t necessarily follow geological logic since it didn’t take place over geological time periods using natural processes. The terrain can lie to you here.

Now, I don’t the the ref needs to go into this knowing why the land changed — they might be interested to discover this as well. But whether or not they know, the landscape itself is going to have to provide some clues. Each new revealed terrain is not just a choice to follow or divert, as with exploration, but also a potential insight into the why of the changed terrain. Randomness can be your friend here with the very contents of each hex acting as an oracle for you to riff off of.

You don’t know where point A is. You’re already lost and mapless. Someone out there might have a great idea about the topography but you’re not that person and they aren’t handy.

Again, this is like exploring a route, except that at some point you should be able to put the puzzle together and recognize where you are. This territory not only needs to be rational, but it also has to be consistent with a (maybe shitty) map you DO have.

So fine, that’s how a map needs to deliver a theme, but there’s another question.

Why do I care what’s in each hex?

This is only partly obvious. If I’m mapping a route, I care what’s in a hex so I can make decisions about the next direction to travel in. But we are going to reveal each hex in turn so we want each hex to have more impact than that, otherwise we might be tempted to shortcut it, and say things like “I follow the ridgeline until we reach water or flatter terrain”. But the very nature of the hex “crawl” is to reveal each hex for some reason. What reason?

Usually it’s Random Encounters. Fine, sometimes, but seriously that’s the lowest common denominator. Maybe the old Risks list has some power here. What if each hex is not just one kind of risk, but one of those?

Cost. Something in this hex requires payment. Maybe it’s a monster extracting a toll to pass the only way through. Maybe you need special equipment to get through and you don’t have it. Maybe bandits steal from you. But passing through this hex risks a Cost.

Harm. Okay fine, here’s your random encounter. Or maybe a risky chunk of terrain that could break your leg.

Delay. Risking delay is only interesting if you have a deadline to meet. I recommend that — you should have a deadline. There should be a point at which you run out of rations or your competitor finishes their map first. Or you will arrive to late to stop the wedding. Something! A delay could be a washed out bridge or terrible weather or even just incredibly dense undergrowth. Something threatens to slow you up unless you find a away to cope.

Spillover. This one at first seems a little hard to handle, but suppose your intrusion on this unsullied wilderness is having a side-effect on the locals? Maybe you are bringing attention and banditry to an otherwise peaceful people. Maybe your presence wrecks the local magic flux that is such delicate balance. Maybe you scare off the delicious unicorns. Whatever it is, entering this hex does unanticipated harm to someone who doesn’t deserve it.

Ineffectiveness. Fuck this risk. Maybe you just can’t enter this hex, period. For sure if you tell players that they will try ALL NIGHT to do it anyway though.

Revelation. Something is in this hex that reveals something unexpected (ideally even for the ref) and not necessarily good. High ground reveals that you are no where close to your objective. A magical storm reveals that the land is still changing and your map may not be helpful for getting home. The partial map you stole from goblins is not just wrong, it’s a trap.

Confusion. You risk getting lost. You can’t find north. Your next move might be in a random direction. Try not to be a pain in the ass about this: making players build a map that is wrong or useless is not actually as fun for the players as the ref. But forcing them to occasionally move in a random direction and calling that “lost” is not a bad compromise.

Waste. You can get through this hex but the horses won’t make it. Or you’re out of water and need to find some as a priority. Something you had in plenty is eaten up in this hex.

Why hexes?

Because hex kit.

 

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Games are at Lulu, DTRPG, and itch.io.

committee

Something I’m noodling with that I thought I’d share. I haven’t played so there’s zero testing so far. And you might have to extrapolate my intent from my text a little. But still, here you go, enjoy this pre-alpha nomic apocalypse.

committee-cover

Play

Each “turn” is a meeting of the council — a session — in which community issues will be discussed and actions planned. After the meeting, actions are resolved and noted.

The council card has space for CONTEXT, PEOPLE, and RESOLUTIONS. For every ISSUE currently in play there is an ISSUE card.

Characters

Create a name for your character. Choose an occupation that you used to hold. Make space on your character card for PERSONAL STRESS.

People

Chair: the person facilitating the session.

Secretary: the person managing the paperwork.

Members: everyone else

Session zero

One person must volunteer to be secretary. Do not proceed until someone has volunteered. Once identified, the secretary will start  a COUNCIL CARD and note their name under PEOPLE: SECRETARY.

One person must volunteer to be chair. Do not proceed until someone has volunteered. Once identified, the secretary will add the name of the chair to the COUNCIL CARD under PEOPLE: CHAIR.

Choose how you will choose the chair in future and note it in the RESOLUTIONS.

With the chair facilitating, discuss as PLAYERS where you are — your community is an isolated downtown apartment building and your committee is its strata council. But where? What city? What’s near? What’s far? Summarize in a single sentence under CONTEXT.

With the chair facilitating, discuss as PLAYERS what has happened to isolate your community. Help is not coming. Why not? Summarize in a single sentence under CONTEXT.

Note the community resources on the council card. A community starts with 5 food, 5 water, 5 space, 5 trade, and 5 health.

Now that you have a CONTEXT, each player should discuss their role in the community. What is their responsibility? Why are they on the council? Add a single sentence under PERSONAL STRESS summarizing why you are here. Draw a box next to it.

Council card

PEOPLE

CHAIR: Emily Fassbinder (player name)

SECRETARY: Leslie Hill (player name)

CONTEXT

Rising ocean levels have flooded our coastal city and our condominium is isolated, accessible only by boat. The salt water fills the first three floors of the building.

RESOURCES

5 food

5 water

5 space

5 trade

5 health

RESOLUTIONS

  1. The first order of business in a session is OLD BUSINESS. The secretary will recap the status of all outstanding issues.
  2. The chair will assign each outstanding ACTION from OLD BUSINESS to a committee member.
  3. The secretary keeps track of community resources.
  4. For NEW BUSINESS the chair will assign the new ISSUE to any committee member.
  5. During NEW BUSINESS any member can propose a RESOLUTION.
  6. A RESOLUTION can modify any rule in this list or add a new rule.
  7. A RESOLUTION is adopted on a 50% or better majority vote.
  8. Community resources allocated to an ISSUE are determined by consensus.
  9. Chair is determined by majority vote from council members at the beginning of every session.

Character card

NAME: Nathan Green

PLAYER: Brad Murray

PREVIOUS OCCUPATION: Veterinarian

PERSONAL STRESS

[ ] I am a doctor and am here under duress because the community has no other doctors

Every other session

If your method for selecting a chair requires it, run your procedure for selecting a new chair. If a resolution requires it, run your procedure for selecting a new secretary.

Old business

The secretary will recap the status of each outstanding issue from the ISSUE cards. For each unresolved ISSUE, examine the outstanding ACTIONS. The chair will assign the ACTION to any other council member in any way they see fit. That member will attempt to execute the action IN FOCUS. If an investigation is CONCLUDED, note the conclusion. If a MITIGATION is CONCLUDED, note the conclusion.

New business

First, if any RESOURCE is at zero, there is a CRISIS. It starts as a fresh issue with dice N+3 where N is the last ISSUE. Treat it otherwise as a new ISSUE (see below).

For each INVESTIGATION concluded in OLD BUSINESS, discuss a relevant MITIGATION. Note the proposed MITIGATION under the ISSUE ACTIONS.

For each MITIGATION concluded in OLD BUSINESS, congratulate yourselves on a job well done. The secretary will update the community’s resources. Put the ISSUE card in the RESOLVED stack.

The chair will roll a new STRESSOR and create a new ISSUE card. They will hand this ISSUE card to anyone they please, except themself. The secretary will note the ISSUE on the COUNCIL CARD and give it a number of dice equal to the highest ISSUE + 1. The secretary will note on the ISSUE card the maximum community RESOURCES available to those resolving the issue. A STRESSOR may have one or more associated resources. Note these resources.

Whoever has the ISSUE card will, in character, describe the new issue the community faces. At this time the issue does not necessarily have an obvious cause. Describe the impact. Whoever has the ISSUE card will add a new PERSONAL STRESS to their character card: this issue has impacted them somehow. A personal stress can be anything — perhaps the issue has affected you directly. Perhaps a family member. Or maybe just witnessing the effects of the ISSUE preys on your mind. Or maybe it’s your fault.

Discuss how to investigate the ISSUE and resolve an ACTION:INVESTIGATE to take. Note the pending ACTION on the ISSUE card. During this discussion agree on the resources that the community will risk on this issue. Note the maximum resource risk on the card.

In addition to these ISSUES any member can propose a RESOLUTION regarding the way the council operates, such as the selection of the chair or secretary or any existing RESOLUTION. Or they can propose a new RESOLUTION (perhaps a new special role and what their responsibilities are — perhaps someone is elected to select who conducts an ACTION). State the RESOLUTION, vote, and if passed by 50% (unless a RESOLUTION exists that changes this) add the RESOLUTION to the COUNCIL CARD. Any diegetic rule can be created or modified by a resolution. Non-diegetic rules cannot be modified in this fashion.

A RESOLUTION can be pretty much anything diegetic. It could for example be “It is now the community policy that all refugees are turned away” and this will impact the narration of any subsequent issues relating to refugees — why weren’t they turned away? Who’s responsible.

Focus

When an ISSUE has FOCUS one person is leading (they are the LEAD) the role play of either an INVESTIGATION or a MITIGATION. They will narrate what they are doing to address the ISSUE mediated by the CHAIR. They can bring anyone along that they want (except the chair), presuming those people agree to join the FOCUS. The chair is the ref but only to guide the narrative and play any other characters in the scene.

The chair’s initial objective is to steer the conversation into a conflict relating to the ISSUE. A conflict is a place in the narrative where:

  • The outcome is uncertain
  • All possible outcomes, however horrible, are interesting

Once the conflict has been located, the chair will frame it: they will

  • Describe the scene
  • Make clear what’s at stake

The members pursuing the ISSUE will resolve it

  • Resolve it based on RESOURCES and STRESSES
  • Actor’s pool:
    • +1d10 for each council member addressing the issue
    • -1d10 for each of the lead’s stresses
    • +1d10 for community resources risked, as defined by the LEAD but not to exceed the limits placed on the ISSUE card by the secretary. Use a different colour die for the resource dice. For each resource type risked, the LEAD needs to provide a story for how that resource is helping and at risk.
  • Threat pool N (the number on the issue card) + number of open issues
  • Compare highest dice to highest dice ; player dice that beat threat dice are victories
    • If a resource die is beat by an issue die, decrement one of the risked resources by 1.
    • If a council member die is beat by an issue die, add a STRESS to one of the council members. The LEAD can choose who gets the STRESS. The recipient chooses the exact STRESS.
    • If there are remaining threat dice, they count as consequences
    • More victories than consequences? Issue resolved & chair narrates
      • Each participant resolves one of their personal stresses BUT NOT ONE RECEIVED IN THIS CONFLICT. Participants narrate.
      • If the ISSUE is related to a resource and the FOCUS is MITIGATION, reset the resource to 5.
    • Otherwise the issue remains open. Chair narrates.
    • For each consequence reduce a community RESOURCE by one. This is irrespective of those risked. Something else happened. If the ISSUE has a clear resource impacted, that’s the resource that’s hit. Any character involved in the FOCUS can choose to take the resource hit as a STRESS instead. Narrate.
  • Determine the cost to the community (resources bet and lost); chair narrates
  • Determine personal costs (new stresses for participants); participants narrate

Resources

A community starts with 5 food, 5 water, 5 space, 5 trade, and 5 health.

Stressors (cards maybe?

Food is low (food -1)

  • Many new people
  • Crops are failing
  • Some went bad
  • Hoarding
  • Theft
  • Water is low (water -1)

Many new people

  • Source dried up
  • Hoarding
  • Theft
  • Looks undrinkable
  • Storage or distribution broken

Travel is limited (trade -1)

  • Flood
  • Bandits
  • Weather

Space is reduced (space -1)

  • Flood
  • Vandalism
  • Splitters
  • Refugees

People are sick (health -1)

  • Food is bad
  • Water is bad
  • Air is bad
  • Radiation
  • Bad sanitation
  • Lack of medicine
  • Resistant bacteria
  • Pests

There is an outbreak of violence (trade -1, health -1)

  • Why?
  • Food
    • Low
    • Spoiled
    • Poisoned
  • Drinking water
    •  Low
      •  Drought
      •  Stolen
      •  Defective storage
    •   Poisoned
    •   Deliberate
    •   Stagnant, bacteria
    •  Tainted with refuse
  • Air
  • Flood
  • Radiation
  • Refugees
  • Vandalization
  • Disease
  • Predators

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transliteration

Warning. I am not a scholar on this topic. This is information I have learned or developed myself in the course of being a nerd on the topic since before puberty. I hope my thoughts align with actual scholars but it’s unlikely.

Transliteration is the process of writing a foreign language in a native alphabet. So, for example, writing Georgian or Inuktitut or Korean (using the Hangul normally) in the Latin alphabet. Its purpose is to allow the native reader to make sense of the sound of the foreign words. To be able, possibly, to repeat them vocally, whether or not they are understood. This purpose is important to the process.

However, when I first started transliterating at the tender age of 13 using a stolen book (yes I stole from the library — I was a voracious consumer of books and my allowance was a dime a week and I was in more ways than this ethically compromised) of Greek stuff I was doing the opposite: I was looking for codes, and using the Greek alphabet as a code. Therefore to compose my native language in a foreign alphabet, the opposite of the usual purpose of the process. I did, however, invent many rules that would seem to align with more correct use.

Later I would spend hours transcribing Tolkein’s wildly inconsistent use of the Tengwar everywhere it was found in my copies of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. In fact I was much more interested in this bit than the stories themselves. And in examining his usage I found many of the rules I invented for myself echoed as well as the discovery that while inconsistent, his methods were not purposeless. Pedantic nerd that I was, I also compiled errata so I could tell where Tolkein was playing and where he was just screwing up. And where he was playing was revelatory as well.

So when transliterating you have a translational choice that depends on your purpose: how much of the alphabet’s power do you bring to bear on your choices? This is necessary because different alphabets have different powers. The Latin alphabet has a lot of letters that perform multiple roles and that compose (ch, sh, &c.). So in translating, say, სახლი, to Latin, there’s a lovely glottal k sound in there. The word is typically transliterated as “sakhli” using the flexibility of English usage of the Latin alphabet as well as quasi-standards to imply with an “h” that we swallow the “k” a little as we speak it. We leverage the Latin alphabet to do something it doesn’t do but that English does apparently allow us to imagine it should. We similarly use “zh” here and there to soften a “z” even though in our own language (say, “azure”) we don’t need it because we aren’t teaching pronunciation with our own spelling of English words. We’re just echoing convention.

So as a kid I wanted to write English words in the Tengwar, the Elvish alphabet, because what could be cooler? It’s calligraphic rather than runic and so clearly much superior to the stonecutter’s alphabet of the Dwarves. Anyway, the question is, how to use it? Consider the word “that”.

Now as a strict substitution cipher, a code, I’d use the Tengwar t, h, a, and t. Simple! But how inelegant! Let us, though baby nerd Brad, think instead like an elf. Or even better, think like a human in Middle Earth: they aren’t transliterating. They are simply using the Tengwar because they have no alphabet of their own! So would a human invent the clumsy “th” structure if they had only the Tengwar to write with? Surely they would not! They’d use the existing Tengwar for “th” and get:

Screenshot 2019-04-18 11.37.39.png

That is, a “th” glyph, a “t” glyph, and a “a” diacritic. I’d use the power of the Tengwar to get my job done. And as a consequence an elf who knows no English can effectively sound out the word.

So this is a thing that bugs me about so many fantasy alphabets: they are built to work as substitution ciphers and not actual alphabets. That is, they are just new shapes for Latin letters as used by English speakers. This is…

Screenshot 2019-04-18 11.40.12.png

Or, better…

Screenshot 2019-04-18 13.29.39.png

Alphabets for other languages evolved to support them. Languages evolved to support the alphabets. They are intimately connected. So a credible fantasy alphabet can’t just be a substitution cipher. Too naïve. It has to have its own rules that are leveraged to create a useful transcription: one in which the native user of the alphabet could sound out the word.

A human in Middle Earth, therefore, would not spell “laugh” that way because they don’t have the history of Latin alphabet usage. They don’t live here. They would spell it “laf” or possibly “laff”. But in the Tengwar. Not this, which zanily uses the Tengwar “gh” glyph as well as an “a” and a bastardized “u”:

Screenshot 2019-04-18 11.43.38.png

But rather:

Screenshot 2019-04-18 11.44.59.png

“Laff”. Using the correct symbol to double the consonant even. You leverage the foreign alphabet and the foreignosity of it is what’s important. It’s what makes the transliteration interesting. It’s why we’re here playing around like this.

Substitution ciphers are fun but they are a million miles less interesting than actual transliteration. Accept no substitutes in your wacky sci-fi and fantasy constructed alphabets. Make a real alphabet, built to serve a different (perhaps literally) tongue, and wonder how you need to twist it to make it say English. Research how the Hangul works, the history of the Inuktitut which was invented only recently to support an entirely oral language. See what choices are made beyond the Latin alphabet.

Normally I’d just draw the Tengwar myself but I got lazy and used this Elvish engraving tool. Its output is Unicode (yes there’s a Unicode set for Tengwar) so I screen-capped it as it was rendered in my browser.

This post was brought to you by my patrons who rock.

 

weapons technology in d&d

sebastien mixed density region

If you build a map you pretty much have to do something with it. I was looking at maps the other day — nautical maps showing depths as contours — and thought I’d like to try a new technique or two and make a similar map for a science fiction game.

starmap labelled

So what would the contour lines be on a star map? I decided they are hydrogen densities.

When you make choices like that and you are like me and want to create, this only raises more questions. Why would you chart hydrogen densities? What does it mean when a star is in a high density region? What about a low density one? Whole games are born this way.

So I built a toy. It’s kind of part of a game that doesn’t exist. It’s a thing you could use to run whole campaigns with your favourite system. A framework for exploration. Here’s the schtick:

You are c-luggers, traders in ramscoop starships that can get very close to the speed of light but of course not past it. You trade. The secret purpose of your organization is actually to keep civilization going — to prevent the inevitable falls you’ve seen a hundred times and to uplift the fallen so they can be functioning trade partners. And to keep your ships flying. Yes, I’m absolutely calling on Vernor Vinge‘s character Pham Nguyen from A Deepness in the Sky. I am unashamed.

You can move faster through higher hydrogen densities (though not the top end — that’s fast, sure, but risky as hell). Your subjective time that passes in travel isn’t much, relativity is your friend, but lots of time passes where you stop. Your old pals on Pig’s Eye are long dead, that’s a certainty, but what else has changed? You remember they were headed for a serious panopticon problem but can you get there in time to bring the social tech you found at the Younger Sister? Maybe you could take the fast route, through the high density zone and make it in time, but what if you’re both wrong and damaged by the fast path?

Oh well, find out when you get there I guess.

So I built a little on page toy — this map and some rules for how to move in it and how to determine what you find. If it’s a new place to visit, what is it like (in the narrow terms the toy cares about — you can use your system to provide the rest of the detail)? If you’ve been there before, how has it changed? And can you get your software updated? Surely there’s a certified software archaeologist around here somewhere.

You can get this at the Patreon page. It’s free now if you’re a patron (and if you are you are free to do with it as you please, including give it to others, talk about it, or just print it and keep it under your pillow). If you’re not, it’ll be available to everyone else on March 15, 2019.

 

quintet

In 1979 Robert Altman made a bomb of a film, Quintet, starring Paul Newman (that’s an edit — for some reason I originally wrote “Robert Redford”, probably because they both remind me of my father somehow) and a number of good (even great) European actors like Vittorio Gassman (The Nude Bomb not, maybe, his best) and Brigitte Fossey.

quintet essex
Is this guy ever not beautiful? He looks so much like my father did.

Like anything by Altman it’s at least interesting. The cinematography is weirdly voyeuristic with every frame vignetted with a blur like looking through a window rimed with ice. The sets were all highly refrigerated, so there’s a constant fog from the actors’ breath. This suits the setting — we’re in a post-apocalyptic world now deep in a nuclear winter and the ice and snow are constants. Technology is gone, we’re down to knives and spears and, well, explosives. Wood is expensive and don’t get the stuff that’s been pulled from the poisoned buildings — it’s been “treated” and creates a toxic fume.

The film has a strange Logan’s Run vibe, but more serious and more complex. But not more fun — it’s convoluted and medieval and cold and weird and slow. And gory (it got 18+ classifications all over the place for the violence and severed limbs). Lots of dogs eating people. It’s not clear why no one eats the dogs.

Anyway, the reason this film is especially interesting given the context of this blog — games — is that it centers around a board game called Quintet. And Altman and the crew developed the rules for this game and it works. If you were lucky enough (or unlucky given what a bomb the film was) to see an early screening, you got a pamphlet with the rules. Yup now you have a copy too.

Quintet is interesting because there’s a sort of referee — there are five players and the so-called “sixth man” who determines the allowed killing order of the players. You can only kill the person clockwise from you on the killing circle which the sixth player arranges. The objective of this “sixth man” is to arrange the killing order such that the weakest player is left to play in the endgame. Only then do their pieces come out.

quintet board
Beautiful wooden Quintet board with actual play going on courtesy of Smout Allen (@SmoutAllen on Twitter)

Play happens on a pentagonal board with a center space, a limbo space in each “sector” of the pentagon, and five “rooms” at the edge of each sector. In the initial move you throw two dice and move each piece to a room in your sector, six being limbo, as called for by the dice.

Thereafter you move a piece the sum of both your dice or use each die separately, moving clockwise or counter as you choose. Your objective is to share a room with your victim, killing that piece. If you kill both their pieces they are out of the game and the killing circle closes up: you have a new victim.

If you share a room with someone who isn’t your victim you are allied — no one can enter the room and kill either of you. But the killing order could change….

Now there are a couple of rules missing from the pamphlet. I’ll try to derive them from the film or make up a good guess.

If you roll a six you may enter the Limbo section of the sector you’re in. That’s in the rules. You have to leave on your next roll. But there are two ways this could work: you could use any die to enter any room in the sector and count starting there or you could enter the appropriately numbered room. The first makes a move out of limbo very powerful. The second presents the possibility that you could wind up back in limbo. Maybe in the next sector? Both are interesting.

EDIT: the film does indeed give a clue how to resolve this when Fernando Rey’s character says “it’s like spending the whole game in limbo, throwing an infinite series of sixes”. So it seems you enter the numbered room from limbo, staying there if you roll a six. Or maybe you enter anywhere and count off unless you roll a six. Clues but no real evidence.

The pamphlet doesn’t say how the sixth player enters the board in the endgame but there is a scene (when Essex plays Ambrosia for the first time) where this happens: the sixth player enters into the survivor’s home sector. We know this because Ambrosia calls Essex foolish for making his last kill in his home sector, giving Ambrosia a possible first-roll kill.

Are there other rules missing? I find this document poorly structured to teach the game but after multiple readings I think I have a handle on it. Has anyone out there played?

sandboxery

When I was young — say between 15 and 21 — I pretty much exclusively ran sandbox games. Hex crawls, really. I’d make a map, usually a huge map, with some named locations on it and a lot of different terrain and then set off the adventure with some very basic kicker, like a rites-of-passage quest to get 12 Amusing Things. And then the game would essentially be driven by random encounters and me ad libbing Story off of randomly generated magic items and my colourful place names. This was very satisfying gaming.

I’ve run plenty of unsandboxy games too. What would a good word for that be anyway? Mission-driven gaming was my favourite — spies with an objective, that kind of thing. Episodic. Still plenty of ad lib since all I’d write down was the mission brief and then wing everything else. Sometimes the mission brief was crazy simple, a phone call perhaps, with someone hysterically wailing about carnage at the Michael Jackson concert.

Turns out it was werewolves.

So sandboxery isn’t ad lib. I can ad lib at least two ways.

So what is it? Am I sandboxerizing now with the Soft Horizon games? Let me tell you how they run and you can tell me.

A Soft Horizon game starts with characters, an organization they belong to and a kicker. The kicker is a problem the organization has that needs solving. It’s vague. Something like “a client got de-certified here; find out what’s up”. And then there’s a place that’s randomly created with just a couple of phrases. And then there’s the over-arching conflict of the plane. In The King Machine it’s the fact that the King is bad and the King’s bad actions are ruining a Good Thing here. There’s some advice about what that might entail. In Sand Dogs it’s the fact that there are tombs full of sleeping gods and improbable goods and people are literally dying to turn that into wealth.

And then as the players address their central conflict they screw up and the system generates new problems. As ref I pretty much just ad lib descriptive text around that problem and then go with the flow. All I have for plans is a sheet that has one or two ideas for “starting some shit” should things slow down.

So is that sandboxery? There’s no map (well there’s a relationship map). There are no encounter tables (though the game twists around a die roll that performs the same twist-the-plot function as an encounter table). It feels pretty sandboxish to me.

But then I’ve heard people say that sandboxing requires a lot of prep because you never know which way the players will go next. Well the system seems to do that for me just fine so is that not sandboxing? Do I need to prep a whole world? I never did that. Maybe I never sandboxed.

What the hell have I been playing all these years? Does it lack a category? Or are categories mostly bullshit? Or somewhere in between — maybe no category can really embrace anything but rather has some idealized play and then almost everything is clustered around the tails of that bell curve.

Could you maybe plot gaming on two axes, say Plot Planning and World Planning and find categories that way?

graph
Is that useful? Where are your actual favourite games rather than my straw man? Are they sandboxes?

So where would we put an optimal sandbox game? From some of the things I’ve read we’re looking at:

graph 2

Is that right? Doesn’t seem to cover all the talk about sandboxing but certainly some of it. Maybe the whole left hand side is sandboxish.

Where are your games on there? What would you call that? Are all hex crawls sandboxes? Certainly all sand boxes are not hex crawls.

Most importantly though, if I tell you my game is a sandbox and you buy it and then disagree, are you going to be upset?

graph all