Hexcrawl High: I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky

Well it seems that the campaign will stagger on for a bit longer yet. Which is good as the plan for this weeks session didn’t really coalesce as planned. But what can one do when a random dragon shows up?

One of the key elements of a hexcrawl, and one of the things I wanted to concentrate on in this campaign, is the random wilderness encounter. In true sandbox fashion the idea was to have no “safety net” when it came to random encounters, for either the PCs or my oh so precious NPCs and monsters, i.e. no level appropriate gating. I think that by and large random encounters have worked out, or at least we’ve had more hits than misses. The encounters started plot threads or generated interesting little ongoing campaign elements (e.g. killing one of a couple of manticores and then having the surviving mate come back later). So Friday night, as per my last post, the plan was to ship the PC’s off to explore a ruined city and to give the kingdom building mechanics a try.

Let’s start with the latter first, as it’s what took up the first part of the session. While I’d read through the kingdom building mechanics beforehand I didn’t realise how poorly laid out they were for “at the table” play. The sections didn’t follow logically from one another and while there was a set of steps for running through a kingdom building phase the details of what happened in reach step were located somewhat randomly throughout the kingdom building section. Before we do a kingdom building phase again I’ll need to at least re-arrange the system if not just flat-out re-write bits of it. The kingdom building itself started out fairly interesting, with the players arguing about government structure, alignment, etc. But it didn’t really feel like a “proper” roleplaying session, more like shared world building. Which I suppose ultimately it is. It bogged down a bit when we got to the various phases, while there were pages of lists and options that didn’t feel like it resulted in meaningful decisions at the table. It was also hard to keep all the players interested. I do want to have some ruled mediated kingdom building but I’m not sure if these rules are the answer.

The plan to get the PC’s to the ruined city didn’t quite work out as planned either. I blame the random encounter and subsequent combat with a dragon for that. So instead of getting stuck into exploring the city the PC’s only (more or less) reached the entrance by the end of the last session. Which may actually have been for the best as my thoughts on the lost city have changed quite a bit in the last week.

I suppose I won’t be able to post this until after this weeks session now for fear of spoilers. (Well this weeks session looks like it won’t be happening but I’m posting this anyway. If you’re one of my players then I suggest you stop reading for fear of SPOILERS).

So far in the campaign I’ve been laying the erroneous trail of the lost city of Vaalathrim being “fantasy Norse” themed. We’ve had wandering duergar showing up with bearded axes, corpses discovered wearing ancient norse inspired armour and so on. But the plan was for the lost city to actually have a Persian/Arabian nights theme as it pre-dated the magical glacier in the area and was in fact part of Abeir which got teleported to Toril in the dawn war. All the norse themed undead were in fact part of an expedition that had been lost and frozen while searching for the city. That said, the city itself is sort of trapped in time/its own demi-plane and also chock full of undead. The city was meant to serve as more or less a city shaped dungeon and introduction to the next “tier” of adversaries in the campaign.

But in the last week I’ve been reconsidering this, the key elements remain unchanged, the lost Norse army, the city in its own demi-plane and the city introducing the next tier of conflict. But the theme of the city is definitely being changed. It’s now going to be mesoamerican themed, stepped ziggurats, feathered serpents (well undead feathered serpents), walls of gold, etc. I’ve come across some cool art that will be re-purposed into some custom monsters and I’ve expanded the cities back story a bit. But what I’m unsure of is should the ruined city be just a dungeon in disguise or should I use it as an actual adventure location. There’s already three factions in the city and it wouldn’t be too much work to add more and have the PC’s spend more time there than an in and out “crawl” would require. Well, an in and out crawl is basically out of the picture as the PC’s will have to engage with at least one of the factions in order to escape the demi-plane. I don’t think I need to make a hard and fast decision on it yet. I can design the city and then add those elements later.

Which brings us back to the end of my last post on this, using nodes to define the city adventure. Basically my idea was to design the city as a series of interconnected nodes so instead of having a detailed map of say, the docks area where the PC’s could explore five boring but perfectly mapped out houses before finding something interesting in the sixth I would only detail the one interesting house and if the PC’s explored the area that’s what they would find. This morning while looking for ruined city maps I was unsurprised to find my idea wasn’t particularly original and could probably be described as an adaption or variation on “pointcrawling.” While my wounded ego may never recover its great to see other people writing about it because it means I can ste…be inspired by their ideas.

Ultimately it doesn’t significantly change my approach. I need to make a rough map of the city (I drew a truly shockingly bad one using an online sketch tool) and then design a dozen or so encounters tied to areas or factions within the city. I do think I came up with a somewhat novel solution to driving home the fact most of the city is crawling with undead but without having endless fights against boring enemies, lots of easy fights to wear down PC resources are boring. So the idea is to change travel into a series of skill checks or saves, modified by the PC’s approach, which will result in damage. So basically the PC’s travel through the undead, and get low-key abused by them, while moving between interesting locations.

Of course that means that my real issue is coming up with interesting locations and encounters. Which I’m having some trouble with, which is why I’m writing this post. I feel that all the wilderness encounters have made combats feel too much like “white room” encounters, there hasn’t been a huge amount of opportunities to use the terrain in fun and interesting ways. So I’d like at least some of the encounters to make strong use of the terrain, which means for the first time this campaign we’ll almost certainly be using grid combat and minis. I’m hoping I can get some custom pawns made in time for the next session.

I decided to use ancient Maya cities for inspiration and ended up with a central pyramid and a pyramid for the sun and moon. This inspired me to use this division for the rest of the city, the central areas are dedicated to the royal family, those on the left are aspected to the moon and those on the right the sun. The city has four tiered layers, so that’s at least twelve major districts or areas. For each area I’d like to have a representative “patrol” encounter, a boss encounter, an interesting “thing” and if appropriate a skill check/saving throw to represent environmental challenges whether that’s crumbling buildings or ravenous undead. I have some further thought’s on “boss” encounters and how they do or don’t work in 5th edition but this is already quite long so I’ll save them for the next post.

Vent your spleen