Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Ineffable Grandeur of 30-mile Hexes

Rob Conley, purveyor of the Bat in the Attic blog and designer of numerous excellent old-school RPG products, recently reminded us on the RPG Circus podcast of a flaw he found in the World of Greyhawk, as originally presented in a humble 32 page booklet written by Gary Gygax and two enormous and gorgeous poster maps penned by Darlene. It's a theme he's mentioned before; specifically, he makes mention of "the howling emptiness of the 30 mile hex".

While I generally like Rob's stuff, and especially (from what I've heard of it-- I've not yet purchased it myself) his take on the Wilderlands campaign, I must take this opportunity to humbly disagree with him on this particular issue. Specifically, he has written:
By the time they reached 10th level or so I was growing dissatsified with running Greyhawk. The howling emptiness of the 30 mile hexes were tedious to fill. The various realms were too grand. Their scale was beyond what I felt even 10th level characters could measurably effect.
In my own campaigns, I've done wilderness maps at a quarter mile per hex, 100, and everything in between. Since I've settled on Greyhawk as my campaign setting of choice, I've come to the conclusion that large scale maps are not at all inimical to the sandbox style of campaign. All it means is that you have a larger sandbox.

Taking the World of Greyhawk as my specific example, the question becomes, "do you really need to have an encounter with a monster every day?" Does every hex have to have a creature, or a dungeon, or an ancient monolith, or whatever? Why can't there just be hexes where there's nothing but plains of wheat, with a handful of farmsteads around a small village?

Personally, I think it speaks to the scale and breadth of the campaign that a party traveling from Greyhawk to Highfolk (perhaps in pursuit of some lead or having a treasure map or somesuch come into their possession) would have the journey be described thusly:
"You begin your journey on the fourth day of Flocktime. and four days later find yourselves in the free city of Dyvers. [Stuff then happens to them in Dyvers, or maybe doesn't, depending on the actions of the PCs and the wishes of the DM] Traveling on the High Road, you reach Verbobonc eight days later [Ditto]. Once you leave Verbobonc, after eight days you come to a small village where there's a ford that allows you to cross the river Velverdyva [Ditto]. A week and a half after that, you see the walls of Highfolk finally greeting you after your journey."
Now, that is assuming the DM doesn't roll for any random wilderness encounters during the trip; over the course of 30 days of travel, there is room for all sorts of random encounters (and, looking at the WoG encounter tables, the preponderance of encounters will be with merchants, pilgrims, patrols, and so forth). But I think that speaks not to the deficiency of the setting, but rather to the nature of play within it.

In some sandbox-type settings, the idea is to explore a wilderness and "clear it out", much like some players are inclined to "clean out" a dungeon or dungeon level before moving on. But the World of Greyhawk fantasy setting, much like the concept of the megadungeon itself (which largely had its genesis in Greyhawk) works a little bit differently. Those "empty" hexes are only empty in the context of adventurers looking for stuff to explore and things to kill. Simply put, in the civilized lands of Greyhawk (and even in the barbarian lands in the northern belt of the map) you're not supposed to go into a given hex with the idea that it is a new realm to be tamed, its inhabitants slain and its lands brought into the sphere of civilization. In many respects, it's just another part of the montage of travel, flyover country where you must travel by necessity in order to get to your ultimate destination.

Does it really hurt anything to hand-wave five day's travel in lands that are fairly civilized, in order to get the PCs to the city? By all means, I think the DM should roll for random encounters, and hopefully have a few set-pieces and ready-to-roll encounters with merchant caravans, troupes of actors, and the ubiquitous peasants set upon by goblin raiders to drop in should the action lag. But in a setting such as Greyhawk, the theme is not "exploring the wilderness, taming it, and bringing it to the realm of civilization". It's "there are elder places of deep and abiding mystery, which we reach by passing through relatively mundane spaces."

Why does the DM need to "fill" all the hexes? What is wrong with having some stretches of geography just be that safe place where the inns aren't run by secret vampire cults, the fields are tended by honest, hard-working folk who don't happen to also be werewolves in thrall to the local lich, and there aren't tribes of goblins in the hills waiting to launch a raid?

Sure, the scale of Greyhawk's maps are large, but that just means the action takes place on a larger tableau. Think of those scenes in Conan the Barbarian, where he is running or riding over hundreds of miles of terrain. The movement takes only a minute on screen, but it gets him to where the action is. It gives the thing depth and scale. Enormous scale.

How is that it different if the characters travel 3 miles to find the next dungeon, monster, or secret cult, or 60? It's just a question of scale, and I happen to think it works in Greyhawk's favor that the scale is so large. There's only one dungeon in any given 90 mile area? So what? There are so many 90 mile areas, all it means is that you've got a little farther to travel to get to the next one. And getting there can be half the fun.

Dare to let the mundane be mundane! It will make the extraordinary seem all the more special.

GenCon Registration About to Kick Off

So I check my inbox today, and what do I see but a note from GenCon with the fast-approaching dates to submit events (Jan 13th), get a badge (Jan 24th), and get housing (Jan 26th).

Full details are here: http://www.gencon.com/2010/indy/sm/press/releases/2010/2010.1.08.Email.aspx

I haven't been to a GenCon in many years (in fact, it was still in Milwaukee when I last attended). Time is not really an issue; it's all about the finances (we're planning a trip to Orlando this summer, so that's taking up all our available "fun money"). If it looks like it's possible I'll be able to attend, I'll definitely want to run a session of Castle of the Mad Archmage, and of course finally meet some of the luminaries of the OSR face-to-face. If a spare $1,000 falls into my lap, I'm there (he says looking hopefully up and to the right at the "donate" button...)!