Things that are,
things that were,
and some things that may never be.
Survival and Exploration
It occurs to me, as I get older, that I came into RPG gaming at a very specific time. I cut my teeth on 2nd ed AD&D. Things had moved away from the original editions to something with more customization and rules for every situation. The amount of books released during 2E was staggering, and I’m not sad about it. The game had yet to move to it’s more streamlined present, and one could expect to either make a lot of calls on the fly or flip a lot of pages.
In those very first games I played, I learned how to play by watching. The DM set a stage, and then the players showed me what was possible. More importantly, they showed me what was expected. The flow of the game made sense because I got to see other people do it. This is something that isn’t really written into the rules – at least not anymore. I never much thought about the importance of it until reading about Game Structure on The Alexandrian. The series of articles really turned my thinking on its head.
I had a lot of takeaways from it, but one of the biggest, and most pertinent to my current discussion, is that if you give players a tool, they will use it. Let’s examine what that means.
Give a player a tool and they’ll use it.
If you are making an RPG and give players a strength skill, strength is suddenly important. If you give them a perception skill, suddenly perception is something they’ll use. If you give them a fishing skill, guess what they’ll do when they get to a river? Probably something horrible at first, but eventually, they’re going to want to fish. You can almost think of each tool like this as a mini game. Do you want to lift heavy things? Do you want to know if you see something? Want to fish? Play the appropriate mini game using the appropriate skill and see what happens!
Consequently, this is one of the things I really liked about 2E: Non weapon proficiencies! (Yes, I know they technically started in 1E.) The list of these is incredible. In 5E, you have the catch all survival skill. In 2E, you have Survival, Tracking, Set Snares, Mountain-fricken-eering… It’s intense. You needed to use a proficiency slot to read and write, otherwise you were illiterate – and I fricken loved it.
For me, it was less about what you couldn’t do and more about what you could. If you have the charioteering non-weapon proficiency, chances are you’re going to want to drive a chariot. Yes, land based vehicles covers that currently, but is it as evocative? Do you see yourself racing a chariot through the city streets using it? What about Reading Lips? Perception would be the default today, but you know someone with Reading Lips is going to want to use it in all kinds of situations.
Game Phases.. in the Dark
Let’s shift focus away from D&D for a moment and look at Blades in the Dark. This game does a lot of cool things, and I find it among my top RPGs at the moment. It does fast and dirty stories like no one’s business and flows really smoothly once you get into it. System aside, I really dig the gritty, thief ridden, pseudo-victorian, ghost world thing it has going on. Seriously, it’s a great game.
One of the things that really amazed me, however, was how they laid out the game structure early on. The game is played in distinct phases. There’s Free play, which encompases a lot of what we think of as standard RPG. Players can request scenes they want to have, they gather info, figure out what their next score will be, etc. This isn’t where too much of the action happens; that comes soon enough though…
Post Free Play, you make an engagement roll. Long story short, this tells you where you’re going to start off in the adventure. It sets up the score phase, which comes next. The score phase starts off when your characters are already in the thick of things. The planning is over. Game play starts at the first obstacle and proceeds from there. A good engagement roll means things start off well for you: you’re sneaking past the guards, the target is already drunk and you try to guide them from the bar. A bad engagement roll means you’re already fighting those guards and the target has two big bodyguards around them.
After the score phase, which is the meat of the game, comes Downtime. This is the part that really amazed me. Downtime is a record keeping phase. While there can be some roleplaying in there, it involves a bunch of rolling on charts and doing upkeep. The world moves around you. Things just happen. As part of downtime, your character might get picked up by the police and roughed up. The crew can pay them off or suffer the consequences. This doesn’t happen through roleplaying; it’s just part of the game! It happens, it affects future scores, you deal with it and move on.
Then there is all the record keeping. You can advance your crew’s stats at this point. You mark down how much you “heal”, take care of your vices, and move money around. Like… it’s an actual record keeping phase. It takes all the paperwork and makes a dedicated time for it. This makes it feel less like a chore, as it’s all tidy and gamified in some cool ways. You get downtime actions that you don’t play through. They just get you cool stuff (or get rid of less cool stuff for you).
One last piece of this puzzle: Hexes
I’ve been enthralled by the idea of Hex Crawls ever since I read about Ben Robbin’s West Marches Campaign. The idea that you could write a story that wasn’t linear or chronological, but instead was locational, really excited me. The emphasis of the game became about exploration into the unknown. What was this land before you got here? Who are its inhabitants? What’s in that tower? This really played into my ideas about enticing the players with knowledge instead of xp or magic items. Like, that’s why we read books, right? No one rewards us with gold pieces after finishing a novel. We read it to find out what happens. We can also play to find out what is around us.
Let me stir this whole stew together now. After having a discussion with Jezsika Le Vye (who is an absolutely outstanding fantasy artist – go and fall deep into her work!) and talking about what RPG content would look like on cards, I decided to create a Hex Crawl card deck. Each card would be a different hex. Think about it: in reality, it’s an adventure module, just with the locations randomized and presented in card deck form. The DM doesn’t have to read forward on anything; they just have to focus on the singular scenario on the card in front of them. They learn the adventure as the PCs do. It gets to be the survival hex crawl campaign of my dreams, but all in small digestible pieces.
You may have noticed that Crumbling Keep has a thing for small digestible pieces.
But here’s the thing: 5E doesn’t have the game structure to support this, at least not in the way I want it to. This was going to need to be more about making a card deck; it’s going to have to provide rules and structure for how to play this way. How many hexes can we go through? What happens during camp? How do I fish? (You think I’m kidding about fishing? I am so incredibly serious.)
The goal is to have that old school hexcrawl feel, but with the 5E sensibilities. I want it to flow. I don’t want it to feel like doing taxes, and it doesn’t have to. Blades in the Dark taught me how to get around that. There can be phases – I can’t wait to tell you about the “camp” phase! This Hex Crawl business is going to be awesome, and I’m so excited about it!
This is the first of the Devlogs related to it. They’ll be more coming out as I flesh out more ideas surrounding it. Inventory management, food, hunting, what do rations look like, traveling… there’s a lot on this plate right now, and it looks like a real pretty feast.
Thoughts? Questions? Drop a comment. Let’s chat. I’m open to inspiration, so if you know systems and games which do this well, lemme know.
See you in the undiscovered country side.