Exploring the Ports of Light in a d100 game

After thinking a lot about social and combat encounters, and magic systems, I decided to write a post about exploration instead. After all, its supposed to be one of the big pillars of roleplaying games. First up, I don’t think a d100 core mechanic has any inherent advantage or disadvantage when it comes to making exploration part of the game, unless it helps your GM prep by buying a lot of the cheap d100 content generation tables on drivethrurpg.com.

When I started playing roleplaying games about 40 years ago, exploration was largely focused on “-crawl” play eg dungeon crawl for specific locations, or hex crawl for exploring a geographical region, with the players making decisions about risk and reward in deciding where to move next. The game system then provided rules for:

  • verisimilitude rules for representing reality in a game, such as calendars and time, movement rates, and weather.
  • spot rules for hazards, such as falling damage.
  • wandering damage tables (random encounters that cost resources or threaten the PCs)
  • inventory management rules for characters, so that food, water, and other necessities need to be tracked and accounted for.

The problem is that inventory management is not a fun activity for players. It also requires some paperwork for the GM (per Gygax “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT” emphasis in the DMG page 37). Many modern game designs make as much of the player facing problems as possible go away. For example, in the GUMSHOE games, you can spend points of your Preparedness ability to have a useful item to hand, even if you did not write it down on your sheet earlier. Another technique is to use a die to represent resources, e.g. roll the die when firing an arrow, and on a 1 or 2 you might run out of arrows or step the die down in size. A countervailing trend, are games that deliberately lean into the inventory management, making it a critical part of gameplay, eg Torchbearer. In these games, the decision around whether to drop a torch or first aid kit, so that you can carry an extra bag of gold coins out of the dungeon is a core part of the game experience.

As for a philosophy of why exploration is fun, the best take I can find in a day of searching and reading comes from The Angry GM, exploration is the satisfaction of curiosity. Other useful articles include The Alexandrian’s take on Hex Crawls, and Ben Robbins West Marches.

So you can push the PCs out of the tavern on a quest to find the macguffin, and the players will search until they discover it, at which point this push-exploration stops. If the players are curious about the world, however, they will see something interesting and want to go and check it out. This pull-exploration is a meaningful choice, derived from player investment in the game world. The players may have different interests, and be pulled in different directions. Exploring may be a distraction, or obstacle, from the current party goal. The time and resources exploring may require is an opportunity cost, and a risk/reward trade-off. Exploration becomes a series of choices, not just an activity or nested loop of play procedure.

Detail from map of Dragon Pass. A good map will evoke interest from players. The map of Dragon Pass is one of my all time favourites.

The d100 games I am most familiar with are largely descended from the verisimilitude game engines of roleplaying antiquity, with detailed encumbrance rules. Exploration does not get the same level of thematic attention as combat and magic do, except in Call of Cthulhu. I think CoC has a central exploration theme, with players choosing to pursue the knowledge that can be found in grimoires of spells and Cthulhu Mythos lore. This is definitely something I want, a game of book hounds, seeking rumours of ancient tomes of lost knowledge, with which the world might be healed of its hurts from “All-Banes Day.” So I will build things into the game from the start for the players to discover in play.

Introspection is internal exploration – where players explore what their character is about. This is not something the older d100 games are optimised for, although in CoC you may get to discover how your character goes insane, that is not an activity the players want to have happen. The randomness of the experience system can produce some surprises about how quickly your character grows in some skills and not others. The more modern d100 designs can put an emphasis on internal emotions through the passion mechanics. As I already want to integrate passions with the setting and the experience system, I do not think I need to do much more with this. I could introduce a specific downtime activity between adventures that is “soul searching” and self-reflection on your character.

Encumbrance Rules

A short overview of how the main d100 games in my collection handle this:

  • Basic Roleplaying: Encumbrance (ENC) is an optional rule. A thing you can carry in one hand is one ENC, two hands is two ENC, with tables to specify the ENC of armour, shields, and weapons. ENC is mainly used to reduce your Dodge skill.
  • Runequest in Glorantha: Your max ENC is the average of STR and CON, with STR as a maximum. If players and GM agree on a reasonable carry, encumbrance can be ignored. The “things” system from BRP can also be used. Every point of ENC above your max load reduces movement, and most skill use by 5%. All ENC (even below max load), reduces Dodge skill by 1% per ENC.
  • Mythras: Characters can carry STRx2 ENC. Greater loads make skill checks harder, reduce movement, and increase effort for fatigue. Armour also reduces initiative, but while worn only counts as half its normal ENC value. An optional simpler system lets you carry half STR in items, ignoring worn armour. Fatigue comes in ten levels (fresh to dead), and in the Mythras campaign I ran my players regarded “Wearied” (level 4), which reduced skill value by half as the point at which life became hell.
  • Call of Cthulhu: Does not really bother with detailed encumbrance rules – but this game does not normally feature the PCs wearing heavy armour.
  • Revolution D100: does not recommend tracking carried weight. Fatigue only plays a role if the GM wants it to.
Map detail of Southern Mirkwood for Adventures in Middle Earth.

Other Games

I am going to look at few non-d100 games for inspiration.

  • Ultraviolet Grasslands: in UVG some of the ways that PCs can gain XP is by eating meals in the locations they are traveling through, as well as spending gold on carousing in the local den of iniquity, seeking out intense new experiences, and the wonder of new creatures or landmarks. The point crawl movement map gives the party a limited number of choices for moving onward, usually not more than three.
  • Symbaroum for 5E: this setting for D&D tries to make exploring the Davokar forest a dark and scary experience, dividing the forest into bright, wild, and dark zones of increasing difficulty. The system eliminates the normal D&D classes that have features that eliminate the hazards of exploring (like Druids and Rangers). Rests take longer: a short rest is an hour, a long rest eight hours, and a full rest requires 24 hours in a safe place. There is a Death March rule for forced marches, where forced marches require the PCs to make death saves. If my players had wanted a d20 game, I would have used this as a base, along with Adventures in Middle Earth.
  • Adventures in Middle Earth: Lord of the Rings for D&D 5E, now out of print. Largely an adaptation of the first edition of The One Ring. Terrain was divided into five types, from easy to daunting. Winter increased the peril rating by one. Using ponies or boats mitigated the first level of exhaustion on the journey. Journeys were divided into short (1-15 hexes), medium (16-40 hexes), and Long (41+) hexes. The longer the journey and the more difficult the terrain, the more encounters the party faced. Checks were also made at the start and end of the journey. The peril rating of the journey also increased all DCs.
  • The One Ring (2E): The party needs to allocate the roles of Guide, Hunter, Look-out, and Scout between the PCs. On a journey the path is determined between origin and destination. March tests are made, on a success the party advances three hexes before an event is triggered. On a failure they move two hexes in Spring/Summer and one hex in Autumn/Winter. Entering areas of peril always triggers events. Events often result in fatigue for the PCs, a skill check for one or more PCs based on their role, and are more likely to be hazardous in wild or dark lands. Fatigue from the journey can be reduced by a mount, a travel roll, and prolonged rest in a safe place. Long journeys of 20+ hexes may require stops in safe places. This captures the mood of travel through the wilderness, and I like the emphasis on mount quality in reducing fatigue. That gives players a reason to own multiple horses, like a medieval knight did with their chargers (warhorse), palfreys (riding horse) and pack or cart horses.
Detail of the Eriador Map for The One Ring (2E). Green hexes are Border Lands, Tan hexes are Wild Lands, Orange hexes are Dark Lands, and regions with a red border are Perilous Areas. The player facing map has less information.

It seems I have a gap in my rpg collection where it comes to games or supplements that feature nautical travel or exploration, 7th Sea being the notable exception. Sailing ships do suffer from the same problem as space ships in sci-fi campaigns – any credible threat to the ship is a potential Total Party Kill. Perhaps a combination of point crawl and TOR hazard levels. The well known points are largely at ports, or other safe harbours where galleys and ships can land for water. Journeys that hug the coastline would be relatively safe, while those that cross seas and oceans would be riskier. If the journey passes by a point of peril, such as a pirate haven or sorcerer haunted isle, further perilous encounters could occur. Weather would factor in here, the old joke being that the Mediterranean has three sailing seasons: July, August, and Winter. Ship and crew quality could adjust encounters and outcomes like fatigue. Sly Flourish has a post on point crawls with links to a few other related topics.

Detail from Ultraviolet Grasslands point crawl map.

I think fatigue in TOR is a mechanic that makes interesting decisions for journeys – at what point does the party decide between pressing on, seeking shelter, or turning back? This will need a conversation in session zero about expectations, as I think the default in modern gaming is that narrative hand waving will occur, rather than it may occur. At the same time I want the paperwork element to be simple. TOR manages this in part by making Endurance, which is also HP, be what load is compared to. It also just focuses on war gear. Players can that easily spot when their PC is about to become wearied by fatigue, as Endurance is already a number they will be paying close attention to.

I do not think traditional d100 Encumbrance creates meaningful decisions at the tactical level, which accords with my own experience in medieval re-enactment. People who are used to carrying a load can move and fight with that load for well beyond the duration of even a very, very long tabletop roleplaying combat. Where it might be a factor, is when fresh combatants engage fatigued combatants – and I think that situation can be handled with advantage/disadvantage.

In the Mythras campaign I ran, fatigue only produced one memorable moment in the campaign, when one PC was separated from the rest of the party, and subject to a magical cold effect that was forcing Endurance checks. By the end of the campaign we had stopped tracking fatigue in combat.

TOR can be interesting at the tactical level, in that when Fatigue plus Load rises above Endurance, you can temporarily alleviate the problem by discarding a shield or removing your helm. If I have a “willpower” system for combat stunts, then spending willpower to ignore fatigue for an action sounds good, but the luck mechanics I am already experimenting with might do the job as well.

My design decisions

A “ports of light” point crawl design will help facilitate travel mechanics, and discovery of points of interest far away from the initial home base location will help evoke the Renaissance theme of rediscovery. This is a play on the “points of light” approach for making an adventure friendly world. Ports will generally be safe havens, with the interior of islands out of sight of the sea being more dangerous.

I will design an evocative map to spur player interest in the world. Little pictures to spark curiosity, rather than text based lore dumps, like the RQ Dragon Pass maps. There will be a player map and a GM map with some hidden locations. The geography will also tell me something about the weather.

I will build a calendar for the campaign world, and a sheet to record the passage of time, so that the time a journey takes to complete is relevant to player decisions. “Can we sail there, and get home safely before the winter storms?” I will have a conversation with my players about whether the RQG norm of one adventure per season is one they are happy with.

The equipment list will need ships and mounts of varying qualities.

I will need to think about what is known, what is unknown, and where and how the unknown might be discovered. A quick list of things that I think the players will be interested in discovering in the setting:

  • Develop a number of mysteries for the players to stumble over and investigate if they wish
  • Safe havens where they can rest and recover fatigue
  • A way to enter a forbidden city (or other gated area)
  • Places to go shopping for exotic goods
  • A few places to explore in depth, worthy of repeat visits
  • Locations where they can find trainers for downtime spent on improving characters
  • Short cuts
  • Free XP from picaresque encounters that surprise and delight
  • new point locations on the edge of their known map.

I think I can adapt the TOR fatigue rules for d100. In TOR 2E, the starting Endurance range for PCs is a range from 20 to 29, although within each culture its normally a three point spread (eg 24-26). This is close to the HP range I was planning for a d100 game (20-30 HP), which means that I could use the TOR endurance, load, weariness, and fatigue mechanics. In TOR a one handed weapon is 1-2 load, a two handed weapon is 3-4 load, armour varies from load 3 for a leather shirt to load 12 for a coat of mail, plus 4 for a helm. Shields are 2-6 load depending on size. Load only measures war gear and treasure – ordinary clothes, blankets, and tools are not counted (but the number of useful items you can carry is limited by culture wealth – which would be an issue with my players who hoard possibly useful items like a squirrel storing nuts for winter).

For a renaissance setting, big heavy shields are unlikely (they fell out of use with the rise of plate armour and polearms). Pistols and aquebus are fairly cumbersome items, so they would be load 2 and load 4 respectively. A big musket (built to penetrate armour) with a supporting rest to allow it to be aimed might be load 6. I can extend the armour table, which in TOR is more dark age than medieval. Plate armour would be load 15, pistol “proof” armour would be load 18 (or 5 for a helm), and aquebus proof armour would be load 21 (or 6 for a helm). I will explore the topic of renaissance arms and armour further when I do a post on combat.

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