My GMing roots lie in the big exploration campaigns of earlier editions, as opposed to the modern dungeon of the week with level appropriate crafted adventures. But these campaigns require a lot of front loaded prep and I’m simply bad at it. I don’t have the stamina to sit down for marathon prep sessions like I once did, and the thought of starting prep at all generally finds me dragging my feet and doing almost anything else. I’ve tried doing broad strokes for the big picture then doing detail work only on the immediately relevant areas, but even that stymies me. I’ve tried random generators, but haven’t found one that didn’t result in a haphazard mess or still required me to do almost as much heavy lifting as before. With this in mind, I started thinking about a campaign setting that would allow me to prep bit sized chunks of setting in one go without having to do the broad brush strokes of the setting.

While there were a few other possibilities that crossed my mind, the simplest option seemed to be a nautical game set in an archipelago. This allowed for a few benefits:

  • The broad brush strokes are done: It’s an ocean with lots of small islands. Don’t even need to map it.
  • Small islands are easy to map, can be handled randomly: While large areas end up looking weird when randomly generated, smaller areas don’t suffer as much, so islands can be handled by random generation followed by a quick editing pass.
  • Islands kill time: While it’s possible that players who see islands simply mark it on their map and move on, it’s more likely that they will take the time to sail around it and make notes, especially if they see any points of interest, and may stop to scout and re-provision and repair if necessary. This means that an encounter with an island will likely end a session even if it doesn’t bleed over into the next.

There are also a few problems to setting up a nautical campaign this way. First, unless you’re lucky, your system of choice will probably NOT have random island generation tables. You can hand craft each island, which will slow you down a bit, or you can design your own tables. I designed my own (available below but probably not applicable to your system). Second, you will need nautical rules, which are surprisingly difficult to come by in games that don’t feature them front and center. In a lot of cases, these can be hand-waved, but at some point your players will want to engage another ship or fire on angry land lubbers and you’ll need to know how you’re going to handle it.

Yeah. It's kinda like this.In my game: I pitched the concept of a nautical exploration game to my core player base and they opted in, but wanted to use 7e Gamma World rules. That’s right, we’ve got a necromantic octopus and an ancient DOS box hosting a sentient fungus (and others) sailing around in a Viking longship. Luckily, Gamma World has a free PDF of vehicle rules, ship stats from 4e DnD and a ballista stat block squirreled away in a module, so that’s enough to cobble together what I need rules wise. My random island generation tables, cobbled together from various sources and some internet forums threads, and a sample island are below.

Random Island Generation:

First roll on the level table to find the level range of foes on the island. Next roll on the zone table to find the number of ~20 grid (or hex if you don’t like grid maps but I don’t understand why) sized zones on the island:

Level TableZone Table

Next for each zone roll on the Elevation Profile, Vegetation, and Corruption tables:

Elevation TableVegetation TableCorruption Table

Now the island as a whole gets from 0-4 “paths” (long landmarks that can be followed for a considerable distance like roads and rivers. In the broken mish-mosh Gamma World we’re assuming there are a lot of road fragments and rivers no longer connected to a source. It also gets a certain number of “Features” depending on size. Points of interest are interesting places to loot or adventure, Lairs (which often overlap with points of interest) are places where a large number of raiders, monsters, robots, etc… dwell. Generally these are more than a few encounters worth and they often roam the countryside raiding or generally making trouble. Apex Lairs are the lairs of apex predators at the top of or outside of the normal level range of the island. Landmarks are interesting features that help make navigation easier but don’t have much in the way of loot or strategic value.

Paths Table Features Table

I also have some random tables for POI and landmarks:

POI TableLandmark Table

With these tables, I can make Islands in fairly short order, especially if I note locations of POIs and landmarks and generate them only as needed.

Here’s an example island and a map key:

Hive Island

Hive Island: This island consists of a single large island and many small swampy hillocks poking from the water. The land to the north is blanketed by huge goopy insect hives of all description, large antenna like structures poking from the water. A wide ashy burn cuts across the northern island fragments in an east-west path.

POIs (Red):

A A fishing village populated by the normal mutants and misfits of Gamma Terra. There are no modern luxuries but the people are peaceful and able to defend themselves fairly well.

B (Lair) A pre-mistake sawmill. Ironically this is being used as a base by a tribe of gren (Gamma World’s militaristic wild elves).

C (Lair) A small bomb shelter in the mountains with a geothermal generator. A tribe of arks (Gamma World dog men) ravage the lowlands below.

D (Lair) A pre-mistake bio-research facility. It’s lowest levels are beneath the ocean and the entire structure is overflowing with all sorts of bug monsters. At the lowest level a water filled tunnel has been bored through the foundation and into the depths.

E dozens of weathered cars are embedded partway into a massive hive here.

F A large half football shape pokes from below the hive surface here. It is a pre-mistake highway salt silo.

G (Lair) A moldering plantation house with a large subterranean mausoleum complex is crawling with zombies. Despite occasionally swarming out of the house in waves there is a seemingly inexhaustible supply.

H A collection of food trucks and a few broken carnival rides are half sunk into the swamp here.

I (Lair) A wrecked ship stands on end half submerged here. It serves as a breeding ground for the local fen eel population (Gamma World fish men).

J A water damaged “Electronics Warehouse” sits in the mire here.

K A collection of rafts and houseboats are lashed together to form a floating city here. They are powered by solar panels and protected by speedboat patrols. The citizens are cautious but friendly.

L (Alpha Lair) A sturdy cinder block garage surrounded by clapboard shacks house a family of brubbas (Gamma World degenerate, “Deliverance” style). They cruise the waters in noisy fan boats, bringing home sacrifices for a bolewart forestal (evil treant) that they revere as a guardian.

Landmarks (Blue):

A A small lake

B Shallow cave

C A shiny silver lead vein reaches the surface here.

D A giant skeleton of unknown origin lies in a sizable pool of tar just off the ashen burn here.

E A weathered street sign that reads “Euclid Avenue”

F A large pipe juts out of the water here.

G Burned out shell of a building

H A rusty oil derrick

I A cluster of boulders protrudes from the hive

J A single dead tree buzzing with burrowing insects and crystalized with droppings hangs over the water here.

K A pile of skeletons

L A burnt out truck

M A shaky fire watch tower

N The swamp is exceptionally lush and brilliant green here.

O The ground here is rich with Bog Iron.

P A bridge stretches out over the water here, leading to nowhere.

Q A hot spring bubbles up from under the swamp here.

R A bit of wall topped by a cannon with a burst muzzle

S Large rock that looks like a face

T A lone mangrove in a small shallow spot