Friday, February 23, 2024

Assigned Encounters

Suppose that instead of proposing a "random" encounter system, we made instead an "assigned" encounter system ... and that this assignment would occur according to established precepts that went some way towards a wide elaboration of situations and adventures.  Suppose further that we start with some known attribute of a given hex, so that the encounters could be assigned in a "hex crawl" format.

What might those attributes be?  The most obvious, that used historically by D&D, is "terrain type," which breaks the map down into mountains, hills, plains, coasts and so on.  I don't suggest this; it's covering old ground that I began experimenting with in my early days of D&D, more than 40 years ago.  I've not seen any effective distribution of the sort I've proposed in all of this time, by anyone, that fundamentally improves upon familiar 1970s design.

But what else?  We're left, unfortunately, with time of day, weather conditions, unexpected events produced by the die, the presence of landmarks, caves, ruins, magical sites and what not.  These are interesting sign posts, but in themselves they don't suggest a framework that in turn suggest actual situations or adventures — except of the sort long descended to cliche.  What we want is a new, rich and promising proposal, that would appear to build upon itself if only the right sort of thinking could be suggested.

Suppose, therefore, that we create an area map of a sort, with hexes, offering some degree of specificity, not nearly that of a halled dungeon but nevertheless tactile in scope.  Suppose then that we establish some selective framework for these hexes, based upon, say, the presence of a certain kind of habitation, or degree of being civilised, which would include knowledge of each hex's wealth, available food and existing facilities.  Such a structure might suggest a sort of "logic" for where situations ought to exist ... and more to the point, what kind of situations ought to exist.  And if the initial distribution of hex "types" and contents was already built upon a somewhat random generation, the situations wouldn't need to be also generated.  We might, instead, create a list of situations that would feasibly or rationally occur in certain kinds of hexes ... and then, as a matter of course, assign the situation that felt best in a given moment while the game was going on.  Or, overall, assign situations over scores of hexes ahead of time, with the idea that the situations complimented one another in a grand scheme.

Okay, stick a pin in that.

Let's review, first, what sort of things would specify hexes.  To begin with, stark topographical features: mountains, hills, untapped forests, karst, dry plains or deserts that deny farming, rivers, lakes and coasts.  Next, access, from stone roads to cobblestone, dirt, cart tracks, cart paths and foot paths.  Habitations, from thorps through hamlets, villages, with different sorts of towns and cities.  All this needs to make better suggestions for us than "put a ruin where the hills are," as there are potentially hundreds of hexes with "hills" — and a "ruin" has to be more than a place on a hill.  For a ruin to exist, it must have at some point been a place that people wanted to build, who had a use for that thing, and then a reason to abandon it.  So some sort of historical, cultural, sociological and economic framework has to also exist, which is strong enough to give definite concreteness to any ruin we want to conjure into being.  Not because there aren't ruins on hills, but because we want a good reason why a ruin should be on this hill and not that one.

Further, we should define what ruins are, as there are ruined temples and settlements that occur because of war, disaster, plague, famine, social unrest, persecution and, in D&D, the wrath of other beings.  While D&D is usually taken to having simplistic premises for why things exist, what I'm proposing is a framework dense enough to give even seasoned players a nuanced, novel, enticing situation, while enabling ourselves to enjoy a structure that makes the invention of those situations within our grasp — particularly, in diminishing the skull sweat normally involved.  I propose that by adopting a new way of thinking, we might see what situations suggest themselves automatically.

It's a dead-end, at least as my thinking goes, but consider the following ecological elements that a small frame game topography suggests.  Micro-habitats, for example, allowing a mix of single hexes that variously contain wetlands, rocky outcroppings, a single mountain, even a very small desert.  We might establish the presence of keystone creatures whose presence greatly defines a small hex group — thus making dozens of naturalised non-political "provinces," some of which monsters control and some of which civilisation controls.  We could define migration routes, the non-civilisation modification of habitats and areas of ecosystem death, which parties would encounter as they crawled from hex to hex.

For myself, this is no better than putting a ruin on a hill.  We've given no logic to why a particular hex should contain a particular keystone being.  We're still just making a list of things that might exist; we're not making a list that suggests what things should exist.

Suppose, then, we change the standard precept.  Instead of thinking what sort of creatures exist where, suppose instead we think of what sort of motivations might exist universally among all creatures — at least, in a generalised manner.  Obviously a lich has very different motivations from a gelatinous cube ... but we can at least accept that both have a motivation, which is turn is shared by other creatures capable of the same general nature.

Thinking along those lines, we might propose creatures seeking to enhance their own survival, defending their territory, increasing their territory, increasing their number, prioritising cooperation or investigation, exploring, securing resources, producing beauty and so on.  This list bears little value as it is, however, as the examples are far too expansive.  We want a framework of ongoing motivations that would potentially involve small enough groups that the party could encounter, and be affected by.  

I'd suggest, off the top of my head, eight basic motivations encountered in D&D on a normal, predictable basis: convert, recruit, reform, trade, raid, forage, fortify and build.

Convert would seek to change minds, promote a cause, propagate beliefs, spread religions, build coalitions among residents, encourage good will, defend the faith, encourage growth of the people and their institutions.

Recruit would be less about changing minds and more about changing professions — thus, offer incentives or rewards to increase the army, increase the number of artisans, replenish population, organise for war, encourage immigration.

Reform imposes order on chaos, providing food, improving health, rooting out criminals, adjusting taxes, changing existing governments, pursuing heresy, purging the unwanted, enacting new laws.

Trade improves relations with other lands, encourages peace, brings in money, provides work, introduces foreigners, increases the supply of goods and gives opportunities, affecting the rebuilding of roads and other facilities.

Raid seeks immediate gratification at the detriment of others, makes parts unsafe, disrupts supplies and trade, threatens life, moves a region towards war.

Forage seeks new food sources, encourages exploration, opens new land, drives speculative investments, gives opportunity for adventuring, social mobility and status, eventually drives emigration from more populated areas.

Fortify strengthens existing power structures, moves a region towards the defensive, unifies villages and towns upon great projects, encourages distrust of outsiders, strengthens communities while isolating them from each other.

Build is separate from fortify, as the direction is towards scholarly and cultural pursuits, in the expansion of learning, literacy, artistry, philosophy and a general "renaissance" of thought and purpose; but on the whole, also the general improvement of everything, from sewage systems and the bringing of fresh water to the expansion of commercial facilities and recreation.

These are by no means comprehensive of all the motivations that might exist.  I'm just proposing eight to start.  Additionally, some of these have very large sub-motivations that could be a group all their own.  Others might be expand, dominate, exterminate, escape, rebel, enslave, rob, terrorise or sabotage.  With all the implications those might suggest, beyond their more obvious definitions.

We can later adapt ourselves to be more precise, but for now it's best that we generalise these categories.  For example, by keeping a wide definition of "raiding," which we can define as any sudden, swift incursion into an existed structured society with the intent to pillage, plunder or EAT the residents, we can include everything in our supposed "situation' from a scaled army to a horde of rats.

Okay, stick a pin in that and we'll address the earlier pin regarding structure.

From our pre-generated wilderness, let's suppose eight basic hex types:

Wilderness dictates a distinct lack of civilisation by the dominant occupation in that area.  This is to say that to the humans of a kingdom, an "wilderness" means there are no human residents, permanent structures or deliberate forms of infrastructure.  It doesn't mean there are goblins there, with their intact lair and personal facilities ... wilderness just dictates that whatever's there, it isn't part of the trade or culture of the main.  The lack isn't "complete" ... the dominant civilisation may have built a road through the wilderness, established trails, temporary hunting camps and such.  But these are especially maintained, so any road through a wilderness will be at its worse as regards condition.  Moreover, the road won't be patrolled, so we may count on nasties using that route also for their own purposes ... and being perfectly aware that humans and other civilised persons are bound to be coming along semi-regularly.  Naturally, should any character wish to establish themselves in a non-occupied place, choosing a wilderness with a road is a really good idea.

Homesteads are hexes that the main civilization occupies but does not control.  Such places aren't cleared and have a low civilian population.  Some effort has been made to root out any baddies in the area, but resources are scant and there's a constant effort to live and let live with the former occupants.  For the most part, the homesteading peoples are considered threatening.  Not always the case, obviously.  Again, there are no patrols, and parts of the hex may definitely be considered "wilderness" ... though aid and refuge is more generally close at hand.  Homesteading is a risk, but it's also free land, so there's reason for those wanting a better life to try their hand.

Hamlets represent an expansion of homesteading, in which the civilised presence is greater, and apt to fortify their habitations.  Thus, as their number does threaten the former inhabitants, there's greater reason for conflict.  Hamlets even try their hand at forming parties meant to clear out the hex — but it needs to be clearly understood that this is in the process of doing so, and not having succeeded yet.  There are still plenty of monsters hidden in the nooks and crannies of the hex.  Using a hex that's 6.67 in diameter (along the apothem) allows an area of 38.4 square miles, so there are plenty of locations to hole up.

Large hamlets have been (mostly) cleared.  40% of the hex has been settled or features some sort of control, including gamewardens and patrols that have established peace.  The remainder experiences daily incursions in the form of hunters, woodcutters, foragers, herders, herbalists and the like that any serious conflict with former residents is little more than a temporary trouble to be put down.  More likely, it would come from an adjacent hex, rather than that surrounding the large hamlet.  At the same time, within the civilising population, the actual governing entities are weak and forced to manage a population that are but one or two generations removed from homesteading (when no law existed).  This creates conflict within the existing culture, rather than without.

Villages have begun to overcome the governing difficulties of large hamlets, now being 3 or more generations since those far off settlement days.  Very often, a single family has established a hereditary right over the hex, through good actions performed by a fore-ancestor.  However, the comparative presence of wealth that exists through the village's trade, plus problems related to general health and a larger population (some thousands, including main centre and adjoined farmlands) have begun creating problems of theft, drunkedness, incidents of violence and in some cases, blood feuds based on slights that may have occurred a hundred years ago.  On the whole, however, villages are peaceful, productive and managed.

Country towns are villages that have steadily grown but not due to either manufacturing or commerce.  This does mean the arable lands are good enough to allow continued expansion and intensification with irrigation, the creation of food ponds, widespread orchards, market gardening and a more diverse food supply — which, though greater, hasn't led to an increase in exports, and the increase is consumed locally.  For the gentry, life is good.  Institutional thinking and traditions have calcified.  Serfdom and social obligations for most of the population has been fixed, framed and forced.   Nonetheless, sporadic resistance occurs, poverty is endemic, times of famine may be catastrophic and administrative crackdowns on religious heresy or economic improprieties are brutal.

Manufacturing towns are transformed villages that benefit from resources, regular commerce and an industrious, expanded working class.  Mechanical workshops and transport are in constant use, bringing about the presence of a small middle class and the expanded influence of guilds and independent merchants.  Traditions are cast aside for the sake of work, as is religion to a lesser extent, though many locales observe sacred days and religious holidays zealously.  Organised crime is rampant, as is begging, fraud, smuggling and sometimes arson.  An influx of outsiders over time has produced a fragmented, patchwork cultural mosaic, with workers from different parts of the world living in their own neighbourhoods and outlying hamlets or villages.

Commercial towns and cities have everything a manufacturing town has, heaped even higher with a bureaucracy comprising of scribes, bankers, lawyers, royal officials, procurators, provosts and judges.  Factions compete with one another, often working with the criminals in order to gain an edge on competition.  Art, architecture and other cultural improvements, even the creation of gardens and monumental structures, especially temples, may occur as a demonstration of wealth.  All is hustle and bustle.

Not the first time I've listed these stages, but it does well to do it in context.  It should be easy to suppose the existence of these things for those who don't want to generate a map randomly, or according to some established precept.  What matters here is that each is clearly different from the one before, giving us a sense for what sort of situations might occur therein.  This is much better than the traditional concept purported by D&D, where there's a wilderness, a village or a big town or city, with no effort whatsoever to describe any of them.  It's just assumed we know.

Now suppose we dig into our pile of motivations and pick out a simple one: "raiding."  Popular with players, comprehensible, quite adaptable to any of the hexes above.  Let's run through those hexes again and this time assign encounters for each in accordance with this one motivation.

Wilderness.  Most obviously, the players themselves are the raiders, heading into the wilderness to plunder from a dungeon or some other lair.  Nothing new here.  But thinking in terms of raiding, we may suppose that one pre-existing group in a wilderness might be raiding another, a situation the players could walk into, not knowing any better ... a sort of ongoing local war.  Additionally, the players could be "raided" by the unexpected appearance of a swarm of giant rats, ants, zombies, whatever, existing in numbers too large for the players to handle.  This sets up a series of initial battles, followed by the players retreating and (hopefully!) warning the next hex over that there's an invasion of whatever on its way.

Homesteads.  As explained above, raids are fairly common here, with the players potentially joining the local settlers to root out some lair, or the reverse where the farmlands are being attacked by small groups of uncivilised humanoids or pests.  Raids in this environment could go back and forth for some time, with neither side really winning, but always urged to try and do so from self-preservation.  So long as the players are rewarded in some fashion, either by plunder found or the homesteaders embracing the players as people and fellow residents, there are lots of opportunities for what's found in those wilderness parts of the hex.  Naturally, the players could just loot the homesteaders and wipe them out, thus moving on.

Hamlets.  Here the players are benefitted from a palisaded fort when helping defend the inhabitants from a raid.  There are more residents of the hamlet, and it's more organised, so potentially gifts to the players could be greater.  The raid that happened might be launched from the next hex, and thus represent a larger lair, meaning more treasure and prestige.  We might also suppose the characters as ongoing raiders, clearing out lair after lair, each time gaining more appreciation from the hamlet.  Raiding the hamlet itself is more lucrative still, and for higher level parties, but would definitely have repercussions that would lead to pursuit of players, who must afterwards vacate the area.

Large hamlets.  With the absence of monsters to raid, the party may nonetheless be the target of groups wanting what the party has, striking at the party while they're at an inn or on the road leading into the hamlet.  Such things might be organised by local bandits, formerly farmers who are taking advantage of newcomers, who are liable to bring money as they look for places to settle or start a workshop.  They might also be arranged by cultists who have taken refuge in these hexes, as they're safe from most monsters, but haven't much of a constabulary.  Players may also get caught between large original families who are vying to be the dominant voice in this "wild west" sort of environment.  Think the Magnificent Seven, where bandits target a specific village to gather food for themselves each year.

Villages.  Despite the settled aspect, wealth is a growing factor in these sort of hex.  Plus there's the manor estate itself, which is a tempting target for players who can't find good horses or who possess little respect for authority.  Villages are also good targets for large bandit parties, or even friendly army units who must forage for food, or find a place to temporarily bivouak while on their way to somewhere else.  A raid could also occur with forced conscription, as armies must be raised from time to time in moments of need.  More likely and common, though, a "raid" is more likely to be a group of local toughs setting out to taunt or harass outsiders or people they don't like.

Country towns.  These may experience some of what goes on with a village, but the larger population is likely to challenge even a large bandit party, while members of the town might have sufficient pull at court to preclude a random plundering of stores or persons by a passing brigade.  Raids are more likely to consist of persecution of unwanted or heretical inhabitants or the desire to seize a few serfs for temporary forced labour.  Here, it's the constabulary that "raids" the locales on behalf of the manor lord, who often imposes heavy taxes that aren't paid, or has other expectations that aren't met and results in small moments of rebellion that must be controlled.  This can be done methodically, but occasionally a house is turned upside down and arrests made, or a nearby hamlet, still in the same hex, is entered and generally threatened.

Manufacturing towns.  Much of the conflict is factional now, between different guilds or associations competing for raw materials, labour, space, recognition or customers.  Shops not paying their dues are turned over, there's arson, destruction of property, upsetting and sabotage of wagons and storehouses ... and duels between town watch that are paid by two or more entities as private constabulary.  This is not to suggest that this sort of thing goes on all the time, only that should an adventure be sought after, the protection of a lone shop from a larger syndicate, or being met by a group of "officials" whose job it is to steal on behalf of one guild in the manner of privateers on the bonny blue, offers possibilities for combat, treasure, intrigue and moments of courage.

Commercial towns and cities.  Here, any sort of street fighting is possible, from incidents between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, established gangs à la Romeo & Juliet, attempts at usurpation, spontaneous killings of unwanted town council members, widespread blasphemy, street riots over food, whatever ... along with the usual small gang activities and trade disputes described above in manufacturing towns.  Cram a lot of people in a small area and there's opportunity for moments of raiding one's neighbours or members of some deeply disliked ethnic group, religious sect or philosophical society.  Such moments may consist of not more than 7 people, victims included, right there the open street, or the whole neighbourhood might be in an uproar.

Feasibly, we may take any motivation described above, and using a loose definition propose a group of possible situations to be met by players moving through one of the hex types herein described.  The problem has always been one of imagination ... but with a few crutches to lean on, knowing what sort of motive is driving the event and what sort of environment the event is taking place in, we could train ourselves to make good guesses about what sort of things we, and the players, could expect to happen ... and thereby be interested in the outcome, and how they might take advantage of that. 

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