Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Small is Beautiful

Ever since I first learned of its existence, probably in the pages of Dragon, I've been both fascinated and impressed by the Blackmoor campaign. This was, after all, the campaign where dungeons were born. Consider that for a moment. I often call Gary Gygax the Dungeon Master as a token of respect, but the truth of the matter is that, if it hadn't been for Dave Arneson, the game that evolved from the fantasy supplement to Chainmail would have been one without dungeons, which are Dave's greatest (but by no means only) contribution to the development of D&D.

What I really like about Blackmoor, though, is its scope. Unlike many campaign worlds, Blackmoor is small. The area covered by the map included in the First Fantasy Campaign covers an area of approximately 400 by 600 miles. The world beyond that area has never been described and that's because, unless I am gravely mistaken, there was never any need to describe it. Dave's campaigning over many years all took place within this comparatively small space, with a great deal of the action being within an even smaller subset of this area.

I frankly find that inspiring and, as I am learning, indicative of the best way to run an old school campaign: zoom in on a manageable area and describe the hell out of it. That means establishing the existence of lots of little settlements, not just the big "important ones," because, in a campaign like this, every settlement is important. The same goes for NPCs. There can be no nameless NPCs, not even the guy at the general store who sells you iron spikes and bullseye lanterns. He needs a name, a personality, and at least a hint of a life outside of his interactions with the PCs. All of that is the stuff from which future adventures can be written and are every bit as important as stocking your megadungeon.

The best campaigns I ever ran or played in had fairly limited scopes geographically. They all involved the PCs running around and doing things within a somewhat prescribed area, which was built up over time so that, by the end of it, we all had a very good sense of what the place in question was like: what it looked like, who lived there, and what went on when the PCs weren't making a mess of things. The trick, of course, is to be flexible and to let these details evolve through play, at least in part. Too much pre-planning and you run the risk, in my experience, of indulging in world building for its own sake. On the other hand, too little pre-planning and you might lose any chance of establishing a "reality" with which the players can meaningfully interact.

It's a tough balance to strike and I'm still struggling with it even now.

25 comments:

  1. The topography of the sinking land is odd, sending a tendril into the elven forest like that. What is the sinking land?

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  2. A more recent RPG that wasn't afraid to give depth to its NPCs was Aces & Eights. Contained within its bulky bindings are names for all the residents for all the towns in the established game world, a true rarity.

    ...now, I'm not endorsing this game. I found it fun, but too much of a logistical burden on the GM once people start drawing guns. Nevertheless it contains an exciting setting for anyone wishing to adventure in an alternate-history wild west.

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  3. Too much pre-planning and you run the risk, in my experience, of indulging in world building for its own sake.

    I found through writing for the Wilderlands and Points of the Light if you limit yourself geographically to begin with then the indulgent world building is mostly taken care of.

    When you find yourself with the howling emptiness of the 30 mile hexes that you went too far.

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  4. Is this map from Domesday Book newsletter (early 70's)? I wonder if someone have such treasure like these pre-D&D artifacts.

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  5. *I mean - is it same as in Domesday Book?

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  6. The map is from First Fantasy Campaign published by Judge Guild. Reprinted in the Blackmoor module series for D&D.

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  7. From what I've heard, the Greyhawk campaign was actually very similar, with the PCs almost never straying from the city and its immediate environs. Supposedly, the rest of the Flanaess was invented more or less completely for the sake of the published folio and boxed set.

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  8. When you find yourself with the howling emptiness of the 30 mile hexes that you went too far.

    Since I think of you as sort of an expert in these matters what is a good scale for sandboxing, 10 miles? Perhaps even 5 miles per hex?

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  9. Hurm. Is world building for its own sake such a bad thing to fall into, though? Lord knows I do that more often than I actually play D&D.

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  10. Since I think of you as sort of an expert in these matters what is a good scale for sandboxing, 10 miles? Perhaps even 5 miles per hex?

    I recommend between 12.5 miles per hex to 5 miles hexes. I typically use leagues. Defined as 2.5 miles. It is the distance one can walk in one hour in clear terrain.

    Following my recommendation means each hex will take from 2 to 5 hours to cross.

    As for the campaign size. My 25 year Majestic Wilderlands campaign focused on an area a 1000 miles by a 1000 miles. Under ideal conditions it took two weeks to cross, on a practical sense it took a month.

    I had more outside that box but the players ventured outside only one or two times in 25 years.

    And realistically the 75% of my campaigns took place in 200 mile radius around the City-State

    So you looking a 10 mile hex map of 40 hexes by 40 hexes.

    I think my Point of Light Maps are too small (135 miles by 95 miles) for a full campaign. A good starting area would be four of my maps, and the full expansion would reach to 16 maps.

    The PoL Maps are limited by the 8.5 by 11 paper so that translates to roughly two Judges Guild Wilderlands maps stacked north to south.

    Hope this helps.

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  11. Hurm. Is world building for its own sake such a bad thing to fall into, though? Lord knows I do that more often than I actually play D&D.

    Only if it leads you to the giving dreaded infodump to your players. Or to you becoming so invested in particular NPCs or organization. That the PC trashing the setting would upset you.

    Otherwise worldbuilding is part of the fun of being a GM.

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  12. James V:
    -Since I think of you as sort of an expert in these matters what is a good scale for sandboxing, 10 miles? Perhaps even 5 miles per hex?-

    Personally I've used both 5 and 10 miles successfully in different sandboxes, but 10 is towards the high end. I think 4-8 miles/hex works best. 4, 5, 6 and 8 are all good. 2 miles/hex gives something that feels a bit too small and constrained.

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  13. Notice too how much of that map is water.

    I recall reading that Dave also used the Outdoor Survival map immediately to the south of this one.

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  14. Too much pre-planning and you run the risk, in my experience, of indulging in world building for its own sake<

    Very very true. A natural progression of the world is what worked for me. Little things (like your hireling in Dwimmermount getting married, to overuse that example)can be used to build on, or discard on a whim.

    I think focusing on that concentrated area, whatever you do as far as building on ideas, is the right direction for what you want from Dwimmermount campaign. It's a big dungeon, so it can sustain the adventure needs for an entire county (outside of the occasional troll-treasure cave out in the woods).

    Sooner or later though, you're goign to want to run an expidition to The Isle of Dread or something, then - bam - it's suddenly a big wide world out there!

    I understand Dave A. runs a once yearly Blackmoor game. Maybe a big enough bribe can get us in?

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  15. Hope this helps

    Rob, that is why I used the word "expert". When it comes to maps, you have a lot of know-how.

    I think 4-8 miles/hex works best. 4, 5, 6 and 8 are all good.

    S'mon, I have to admit, I was worrying a bit about the level of granularity at a 5 mile hex, that it would feel a little too small. How does it work out for you?

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  17. I typically use leagues. Defined as 2.5 miles.

    I assume that's a typo and you meant 3.5 miles?

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=1+league+in+miles&aq=f&oq=

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  18. I recall reading that Dave also used the Outdoor Survival map immediately to the south of this one.

    Do you mean this familiar looking map?

    http://home.earthlink.net/~wilderlands/southlandsm.jpg

    ;-)


    I assume that's a typo and you meant 3.5 miles?


    No I meant 2.5 miles. The league never was nailed down like the mile. However it is useful for gaming as by definition 1 league = 1 hour walk.

    Now a hour's walk on a road is vastly different than an hour's walk in the mountain. I choose to use harn's definition of 2.5 miles through lightly wooded terrain which is the default terrain for most temperate climate regions.

    On a improved road you can get up to 3 to 3.5 miles per hour. In my game it is 1.5 leagues per hour. Following a regular road gets you the base 2.5 per hour regardless of terrain.

    With that said, there is really no wrong definition. Just figure what terrain you want to use as your base and scale the rest accordingly.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/League_(unit)

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  19. I love the original Blackmoor. It edges out even the Wilderlands in my opinion.

    The large-scale map I use in my home Carcosa campaign is precisely the size of the Blackmoor map (along with the 10-mile hexes). About 75% or 80% of the campaign has taken place in the quadrant of the map that I published in Supplement V: CARCOSA. The rest of the campaign has taken place in the quadrant below it. The remaining two quadrants are as yet virgin territory.

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  20. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/League_(unit)

    "Usually about 3.5 miles".

    :)

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  21. Does anyone have an opinion on the DA (DA 1-4) series that TSR published for Expert D&D in the 1980s?

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  22. Does anyone have an opinion on the DA (DA 1-4) series that TSR published for Expert D&D in the 1980s?

    I bought all of them for my collection, didn't play them, wasn't too excited by them. They're enormously tied into the D&D Known World (via an "it's in the past and you can time travel there" hook), which didn't feel right to me, almost exactly the opposite of James' recommendation in this blog post.

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  23. "I bought all of them for my collection, didn't play them, wasn't too excited by them. They're enormously tied into the D&D Known World (via an "it's in the past and you can time travel there" hook), which didn't feel right to me, almost exactly the opposite of James' recommendation in this blog post."

    Could one simply ignore the 'retcon' element and use the DA version of Blackmoor as a straight-up setting?

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  24. What is the sinking land?

    Someone better versed in Blackmoor lore will have to answer that question, I'm afraid.

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  25. I bought all of them for my collection, didn't play them, wasn't too excited by them.

    They're pretty mediocre overall. I didn't hate them, but I also didn't find them incredibly inspiring either. It's a real pity that Blackmoor has never gotten a good treatment beyond First Fantasy Campaign, which is both out of print and unavailable as a PDF.

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