Thursday, May 3, 2018

A Day at the Beach

Following the last post, Building Blocks, I'd like to explain what a "building block" might be.  I don't see an urban setting being made of just one sort of block, but rather hundreds of sorts.  A block might be a skein of scattered houses, with small paths between, as Hobbittown is depicted in Lord of the Rings.  Or it might be a linear row of houses, stretched along a river; or a festival ground, with a pitch that includes a collection of homes and warehouses; or a gutted area, where a fire destroyed everything between two avenues, or where a mud slide washed a path down to the river.  There might be hundreds of people living on top of one another, in one sort of block; in another, there might be only a single monastery surrounded by an enormous yard and wall.  Given time, we might create an extensive list, featuring all sorts of small urban environments, that would then be pieced together.  A few pieces would make a village; many more pieces, a town.  Hundreds of pieces, so large that it would take a game year for the players to properly search it, might make a huge city.  This is the idea.

Much detail of one building block hidden by trees or off
shot, to the left.
With this picture on the right, I will propose a most benign example, one that might occur in any size of urban settlement, from London to the most obscure coast in Siberia ~ the image of fishing boats pulled onto the shore, for safekeeping or for repair.  I found myself wondering what this sort of beach is called ~ surely, there must be a name for it.  Turns out, a beach favored for grounding sailing vessels, to enable repairs to be made, is called a "careenage."  It is nice to have a name for things.

Let's say we've come to a village that includes a careenage ... and that as a unit on our map, it comprises one block, or 3.7 acres.  And that we, as players, are going to explore this hex, for a day.

That seems unlikely, doesn't it?  The block size I specified yesterday was a diameter of 435 feet.  We can walk from one edge of that to the other in five minutes; and we can easily see these boats as we walk by, so where's the "exploration?"

To begin with, the beach is but a mere sliver between two sides of the block: the sea, or lake, and the land above the beach, where the fishing culture or boat builders live.  To explore the sea, we must strip down and go swimming, discovering what the currents are, what sort of game exists, how warm is the water, how far we can go out before risk our lives.  The small collection of houses will be protected by a sand bar or an earthen break, if inland is but a few feet above sea level; or they may be nestled upon a slope above the beach; or they may be found atop a cliff, dozens or hundreds of feet up, necessitating a serious climb.

Even so, with twenty minutes of swimming, and twenty minutes of seeing what houses there are, likely not more than a few dozen, this will not take a whole day, will it?  That's hardly exploration.

We must ask, as players, what do we want from this beach?  If all we see is a beach, and it does not interest us, then we can mark it on our maps as "beach, careenage," and go on our way.  But does this mean we "know" this beach?  To answer that, we must ask ourselves, what might it give us?

Well, surely passageway to a nearby island or across a small expanse of water, perhaps 20 miles.  Players will often ask if they can convince a boat owner to shuttle them some distance, and DMs nearly always say yes, for a little money.

But suppose we treat these people as they actually are, rather than as a game's plot convenience.  They are most likely proud.  They are most likely distrustful.  They would not like to go out of their way for strangers, risking their boats, their livelihood, knowing that boats are preyed upon by pirates and by passengers.  Too, they've worked the long day; if they take players twenty miles, how exhausting will that be?  Shouldn't we, as players, have to make friends first?

That could take all day.  Chatting up a few of the folk, discussing their business (they would not care about our business), learning about their difficulties, their politics, their motivations ... and seeking their respect.  These people would not respect intellect; or piety (the sea is god and she is a mean bitch); or money (too proud to take it); or status.  These people respect ability.  Can you manage a boat?  Have you ever fished properly?  Do you know the sea.  For these folk, what you know about their business means as much as your charisma ever could.  Luckily, I have a series of sage abilities (sailing, fishing, oceanography, beachcombing) that would prove handy for some of our characters to break the ice.  As might a number of thieving skills related to smuggling; if the beach were being used for that purpose, it might take us more than a day to learn it.

So, suppose we talk to a few boaters; we assign some modifiers (whatever system you're playing) to our charisma, to see if we can help scour a hull free of barnacles; or wangle a trip out on the water to help pull nets; or get ourselves invited to some fisherman's house for an evening meal.  We learn a few names. We role-play.  We make a friend or two.  And on another day, some time in the future, when we need a trip across the water, we drop in on Charlie and see how he's doing.

When we want some fish, we don't go to the market; we get a good deal from Charlie, or Buck, or Mattie.  We might even make an exchange; a mend spell, or a herb, traded even.  We might strike up a bargain to make ourselves middle men ... but that really depends on how those charisma rolls go.

Let's get into those, because they matter.  I'll describe my party.  As Ikhnaton, a mage, I'm not much of a physical guy and I'm not great in the charisma department either.  My friend Jenkar, however, is a pretty damn strong fighter; but he knows nothing about the sea.  Kendra had a sailor for a father; she's pleasant and talkative, with a 14 charisma.  She's the best we can offer.  Finally, Lanna, our thief, is taciturn, with a 9 charisma.  She's our liability.

But the thief is willing to go out fishing, and she's sharp with a line and a rod, and she does pretty well with her dexterity; so we give a +1 bonus for impressing with ability.  She also knows quite a lot about the smuggling that goes on up and down this coast, and the fellows wonder just what she knows; if they're actual smugglers, this might be bad, but they're not.  They like learning what to watch out for, so we give Lanna another +1.

Kendra gets +2 for sailing and +1 for knowing some sea chanty's taught to her by her father; songs from another country, because we're strangers here.  A new song is a great thing.  Jenkar, meanwhile, uses his energy in the evening to pull boats in from the water, and helps roll two of them over for repairs.  He's not bright, but he's welcome.  And I hear about a boy who has injured himself and is now suffering from a fever.  I have a very expensive healing salve in my pocket, but I'm willing to sacrifice it to buy some good will.

At the end of our day, we roll charisma checks, using our bonuses.  I fail; Lanna fails. But Jenkar and Kendra succeed.

When we want to make use of these people someday, to help us out, we know who to send.  Lanna and I will wait at the end of the beach as a boat is sorted out ... and we'll get picked up there.  On another day, perhaps, we might take our chances again, to get over our bad first impression and make friends.

Dull?  Perhaps.  But all this could be played out in half an hour; and it really depends on how important this beach might be to us someday.  It might be the start of a smuggling operation, particularly if Lanna eventually makes friends here.  Or it might be a merchandising base.  Or we might like the people so much, we build ourselves a cabana on the beach.

We might even find that the water is so clear here, that our wounds heal faster on this beach.  That could be a random roll the DM makes.  We might find it restores our fears and gives us a +1 on some saves. Remember the scene where Frodo and Sam remember the strawberries back home?  We might have that scene, but about this beach.  This beach might give one of our party the strength to carry another when the time comes.  Who knows?  It really depends on how we see it as players, and how the DM lets us see it.


Samuel Kernan said...

"Having friends" is a useful way for a character to gain more options and power at a lot of DnD table, I would imagine, but tying it to a roll, and limiting it to a limited number of attempts in an area or time period would make my players, at least, value their friends more.

I imagine some players might like to have a path to gaining allies beyond impressing the DM with your friendliness/willingness to talk with NPCs.

kimbo said...

Deeper and deeper it goes.
Would not the time taken to examine an area (and the skill/ability used) depend on what the players are actively looking for? The level of resolution and the information of interest.
At one extreme would be the forensic investigation combing every inch at the other the walkthrough. For exploring in your example you have assumed a level of resolution and interest. Is this a matter of DM discussing party goals prior to explore mode, or an ongoing conversation during your description of exploration?

Ozymandias said...

I think this illustrates how a DM can avoid the appearance of, "Impress me to earn bonuses." It's discussed as a, "what if?" scenario, meaning we have a baseline for comparison. When a player comes around with something like, "Can I apply my understanding of politics or law? Maybe connect with the fishermen on a contentious legal matter like taxes?" the DM can compare the suggestion to the examples and make a fair assessment as to its applicability.