Designing a Civilizational Hexcrawl

When originally designing First Cities, I knew right away that I wanted to structure the campaign as a hexcrawl. For those unfamiliar with the term, a hexcrawl is a RPG campaign approach where the DM builds a setting; maps it to a large hex map; keys the hexes with locations, lairs, and encounters; and then let’s the players go wherever they choose — like playing in a sandbox really. There are a lot of great resources on the Internet for tackling your own hexcrawl, including a series of posts at The Alexandrian and a round-up of Old School Fantasy Hexcrawl Resources at Gnome Stew, both of which I found very useful.

However, I also knew that I wanted to do more than a straightforward hexcrawl. I wanted to add a twist that gave the players something more to accomplish than merely discovery for discovery’s sake. What I settled on is a campaign structure I’ve taken to calling a civilizational hexcrawl. In it, I’ve merged the traditional planning, procedures, and game play of an old school fantasy RPG hexcrawl with a goal-driven resource management component one typically sees in digital games like Civilization or the Total War series.

As I noted in my previous post (“First Cities Campaign Premise”), I’ve structured First Cities around a tribal exploration dynamic where the players run the Sakas tribe as it moves into the river valley of Khamaz, home to the First Cities of Humanity. The players engage the premise on two levels: 1) they control the elder moot, made up of various tribal elders who make the key strategic decisions for the tribe (e.g., how are new resources divided up, where should the tribe move for the season, where should the tribe’s rangers and outriders explore this season, etc.); and 2) they control the key rangers and outriders for the tribe that carry out the objectives determined by the elder moot.

Now the rangers/outriders component is pretty straightforward; it’s the D&D PC play time — dungeon crawling, wandering monsters, chaotic combats, and all that. Thus, at the moment, I don’t need to focus too much on this part. What I want to explore more fully is the elder moot component.

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During game time, the elder moots have usually been great excuses for the players to flesh out the personalities and relationships of their tribal elders as they shoot the shit and decide what the tribe will be doing for that evening’s session. However, there is a more structured role for them as well; they must manage and develop the tribe’s material wealth and prosperity. It works as follows.

There are two main metrics for measuring the prosperity of the tribe: Resources and Assets. Under Resources, there are three sub-categories (Food, Tech, and Security), which are represented by abstract points measured against a tiered-scale. Under Assets, there are also three sub-categories (Wealth/Material Goods, Military, and Herd), which are represented by actual items and traditional RPG conventions (e.g., we recovered ten lion pelts and eighteen goats from that Gutian camp we raided).

While adventuring, the ranger/outrider PCs find rewards that include not only mineral based wealth and magic items, but also technology, food resources, mundane items, and so on. If the PCs turn this material over to the tribe, it’s converted into points using simple conversion rates I deveoped and added to the appropriate resource category. Conversion is also one way, meaning that once some item has been converted to Resource points, players can’t use it later as a tangible item during game play. Other wealth and material goods not converted into Resource points, along with herd animals and human military assets gained by the tribe fall under the Assets category, which serves as a pool of wealth the elder moot can use for trade, gift exchange, or whatever.

The Resource points, which can range from zero to forty-five, represent the tribe’s growth or decline in a particular area vital for its survival. As the numbers change, they fall within a series of tiers, which break down as follows: 0 / 2.5 / 5 / 15 / 45. Each tier has a benefit or penalty attached to it, which affects the tribe depending upon which Resource category point total is in which tier. The first two tiers represent sub-optimal conditions for the tribe; the middle tier is subsistence; and the last two represent advanced development.

Mechanically, the benefits and penalties are attached to die rolls, ranging from a -2 penalty in Tier I to a +2 bonus in Tier V. For Food Resources, this modifier affects all physical ability checks, skill checks, and saves. For Tech Resources, the modifier affects all knowledge-based skill checks, including mundane and magical crafting. For Security Resources, the modifier affects all combat attack rolls.

In terms of the goal for this strategic resource management component, the players need to develop their tribe enough for them to change from a nomadic tribe to a permanent settled community in Khamaz. To do this, they must reach Tier V in all three Resource sub-categories. After that, they can permanently settle their tribe, and the campaign shifts into a more traditional D&D campaign (either with the same tribal PCs or new characters from a different area). Conversely, if the tribe’s Resources all fall to zero in Tier I through disaster, disease, and/or bad decisions, the tribe collapses and disbands, with the remaining PCs becoming a troupe of adventurers.

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I came up with this mechanism after reading a pretty cool, post-apocalyptic RPG called Other Dust by Kevin Crawford, or more specifically the rules for developing and managing Groups and Enclaves in that game. As should be obvious to anyone familiar with Other Dust, I loosely adapted elements of those rules for First Cities. Prior to stumbling across Other Dust, I was having a hell of a time trying to figure out how I was going to integrate resource management into the campaign. Other Dust helped me break through the conceptual logjam and slot everything into place.

Thus far, after nine game sessions of the campaign, this mechanism for tracking the tribe’s macro progress has worked pretty well. Those players who are into Civilization-type games have taken to it, while those not so interested seem content to let the others take the lead in managing it.

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Featured Image: “The Grand Duchy of Karameikos and Surroundings, 1000 AC” Hex Map by Thorfinn Tait, used under Creative Commons license.

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