I thought I'd make a new discussion about this rather than bogging down the current OSR threads with this rambling discourse. I've been asked to lay out my encounter tables used in recent IRC sea hex adventures and expand on the whys and wherefores of my design choices. I guess this is a methodology of sorts. It'll probably go on for a few posts but I invite everyone to interrupt with questions and generally give me a hard time: it's certainly not a proven methodology and needs robust and critical eyes passed over it.
To introduce the newcomer to what this is: I'm running some Oldschool Dungeons and Dragons
over IRC with some Story Games folk and we had lots of fun with a scenario involving starting play on a ship out in unknown waters trying to reach port (a city previously established in regular land-based play). The players are part of the crew and undertake the archetypal oD&D exploratory hexcrawl through the Unknown to some known safe-haven. The following... stuff
is what I used as a Dungeon Master (Sea Master?) to generate the sea hex exploration, or "sexploration" as it's been misleadingly referred.Setting.
Sexploration is pretty setting agnostic. A mysterious stretch of magical islands in temperate seas would probably fit in most D&D-inspired games whether they are strictly High Fantasy or not. Generally we're assuming the play is breaking new ground in terms of Hex Exploration and everyone's pretty prepared for weirdness and pulpy sea adventure. It's no revelation to suggest that the best games are the ones where we're all on-board in terms of genre, mood, colour etc.
The two Master Texts here are Homer's Odyssey
and Lewis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader
: two tales about typical crews of largely unremarkable vessels sailing unknown waters and discovering the supernatural or fantastical, which is positioned as being concealed from the "real world" by its isolation out in an uncharted ocean. The third Ur-text is Star Trek
The supernatural experience isn't the motivation for travel (these aren't new-age pyschonauts) but usually for material or intellectual profit, or a desire for safety - the incursion of the fantastical, the unexplainable, is a test or distraction from the main motivation to travel. Star Trek
is the best example of this: always pushing onwards episode after episode, however engaging the Planet of the Romans or meeting God himself is. The "Mission" or cause is the greatest good and these traumatic side-shows offer colour or variation but not the safety and stability of home. The seafarer quests for safety and freedom from fear. It is a reactionary mode but it contrasts well with the invasion (sometimes subtle, sometimes aggressive) of fantasy situations. The fantastical is both intriguing and colourful (definitely extraordinary) but ultimately all of these mystic encounters are in some ways threatening, especially if they seem to offer the security the player-as-seafearer desires. The lure of Safety (the profit that comes from living to see another day) should out-way the lure of Potential (new treasures to quest after, to gain) is a principal that needs to be the foundation of the Sea Exploration; prolonged time in this high-encounter Unreal environment is antithetical to mortal life. 1 - Followed by The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Sindbad the Sailor, The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past/Wind Waker, Prince Valiant, The Moomins, Pirates Movies of the last 70 years, Tintin, Moby Dick, 20,000 Leagues, Pirates of Blackwater, Monkey Island, Earthsea, Kidnapped, Gulliver's Travels, Treasure Island, Muppet's Treasure Island, etc. System.
The text I bring to table are the Basic and Expert Dungeons and Dragons
rulebooks (Moldvay, '81). This isn't very important as the game I actually play is B/X or Next Best Offer
. The B/X-or-NBO
works by only being driven to reference the text when you're not being able to reach an agreement about a good way to resolve a conflict or introduce a new elements to the fiction with your players: if anyone offers an agreeable "Offer" of how to resolve the current issue then I'd rather use that than consult Moldvay. B/X
is worth reading though, it defers to random tables more readily than later editions. Random Tables, detailed/populated (A table of potion types) or abstracted ("An encounter has a 1-in-6 chance of occurring when you enter a hex"), are an essential part of how I see this kind of D&D working. Everything has to be expressed, if it is to be expressed mechanically, as a table - even the most vague high-low, 50/50 1d6 rolls. It's a healthy mental habit for the kind of low-intentionality DM mode I find useful. It's likely that I'll spend the majority of my creative energy with the central encounter table in a hexcrawl: interpreting results, repopulating, generating new tables. In effect, the rules I write myself (the tables I populate) are more utile at-table than two whole books of published material. Setup.
Just like Star Trek
, it's easy to start in media res
- in the middle of things - with some simple preamble. "Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Star Ship Enterprise..." But lets give the situation a bit of a immediate kick, some problems, to encourage pro-active characters and stimulate immediate adventurous pay-off. So:
You are the crew of a sizeable merchant ship named... (?).
You are [4d6] days from the nearest known port, (name?), but the threatening...
1. ...pirate galleon...
2. ...storm front...
3. ...ubiquitous leakage...
4.(pick two from the above)
6.(all three and there is a 50% chance for each PC to start locked in the brig for serious yet unspecified crimes)
...will come to bear in (1d4) days if no action is taken.
Undertake perilous seahex or die. New characters only.
If the players all agree that this seems like a challenging scenario that they could imagine characters in, then we move on:
Your new character's rank aboard is...
1. ...the lowest rank, either (roll high) a cabin boy or (roll low) indentured labour.
2. ...part of the crew! an able seaman
3. ...part of the crew! a carpenter
4. ...part of the crew! a cook
5. ...Bosun's Mate - a petty officer raised from the ranks, so to speak
6. ...a Clerk - someone's gotta keep the records, the keys and the purse-strings.
7. ...Midshipman. A junior officer. Literally, roll 10+1d6 for your age.
8. ...Lieutenant. Command watches, lead press gangs, impose your captain's will.
9. ...Captain. You command the day-and-night running of the ship.
10. ...Master. You are the legal owner of the ship. You employ a captain to maintain and run her for a large fee. Three things: She is in peril. The crew's pay in is arrears. You are aboard. Negotiate likely (heavy and valuable) cargo with DM.
There are 10+2d10 crew aboard. There are 2d6 officers. Roll likely dispositions normally. A 1,000 xp quest reward for the party if the ship makes it, and 10,000 if the party ends up in possession of the ship upon reaching safe port. Additional XP may be gained from the sale of any cargo (10% of GP value is taxed at port by the local lord).
Now the players can roll Attributes and complete character creation with an eye on the social positioning (and resulting microcosm) amongst the crew. Anyone who's heard the word "mutiny" knows exactly what kind of relationships are on the table here.
The NPC crew are populated around the PC rolls using the above table to help: there needs to be at least one of each. It's likely that some NPCs with outrank PCs, but it's fairly unproblematic if a PC Lieutenant naturally commands the crew more than an NPC captain. Players should be encouraged to name and characterise the crew - there are a limited number and setting up a list is useful for determining who gets knocked overboard in a storm and which NPCs are available for players with the deaths of their PCs (the NPC pool is the number of player "lives" in the video game sense).