Ever since Troy’s article about running red box D&D for his kids at the end of January, I’ve been immersing myself in the OSR (Old School Renaissance). It’s been a ton of fun, and one aspect in particular has been some of the most fun I’ve had as a GM in years.
Even though I started gaming with the Mentzer red box, I never fully experienced old school play in the most classical sense (a group of treasure hunters/tomb robbers go on dungeon crawls to amass treasure and glory). That could have been because it was 1989, because I only played solo (one GM, one player) back then, because of my first GMs’ personalities, or because of any number of any other factors.
One aspect I missed out on — to the point that I wasn’t even aware it existed — was the hexcrawl (or hex crawl, if you prefer): the original sandbox. In brief (as I understand it), a hexcrawl is a game where the GM designs a portion of the world, maps it out hex by hex, populates it with things for the PCs to do and places to do them, drops the PCs somewhere in the middle, and asks her players “What do you want to do now?” The story is what the PCs make it — no over-arching narrative, no GMing agenda to preserve, and no need to fudge rolls or pull punches.
Coming off of a story focused, tightly scripted Star Trek campaign where the whole group prioritized making it feel like the show, the hexcrawl concept hit me like a combination ton of bricks/breath of fresh air. I’ve never gamed this way on either side of the screen, but goddamn do I want to try it out.
So in my vanishingly miniscule spare time, I’ve been creating my own hexcrawl. It’s incredibly liberating. I can see a few opportunities in 2012 for running adventures in this setting, but I’m not committed to anything — I’m prepping this because I want to, not because I have to. Prep not being my most favorite thing, that’s rare for me!
Along the way, I’ve found a host of resources that have educated, enlightened, and inspired me, made hard things easier, and generally been totally awesome. Here are the best of them.
Embrace Randomness and Just Have Fun
Welsh Piper’s hexcrawl guide
I’ve been following this method pretty closely, and I absolutely love it. It’s the perfect combination of serendipity and enforced randomness, and letting the dice fall where they may has taken my initial ~15,000-square-mile region in directions I never would have thought of or chosen in a vacuum. My favorite aspect is building things on the atlas level, then the regional level, then the local level — and templates for Hexographer (see below) are provided for those options. (The link is to part one; there’s also a part two.)
The free version of Hexographer
Hexographer is a great example of a gamer-designed tool that works beautifully, and of gamers giving back to the community. The free version differs from the reasonably priced paid version primarily in that it only works online via their website — you can do everything you need to map your hexcrawl in the free version. It’s one of the most user-friendly utilities I’ve ever had the pleasure of using, and it’s made starting and discarding early versions of my world very easy. (You can read Kurt’s Hexographer review right here on the Stew.)
Bat in the Attic’s insanely detailed hexcrawl system
I say “insanely” not as an insult, but because this system goes into incredible detail. The beauty of it is that it remains eminently readable and inspiring even though I don’t have time to follow it exactly. Just reading the whole series has made me a better GM.
Quick Primer for Old School Gaming
I’ve found myself going back to this little free book and its concepts many times over the past six weeks, and it’s been tremendously useful to me. If, like me, you’ve never sampled this play style, it turns a lot of assumptions you may have about gaming on their heads. It’s had a profound impact on how I think about gaming as a whole, and on my assumptions about the “right” way to do things. It’s not hexcrawl-specific, but man is it useful. (Oddly, this book has been reviewed not once, but twice here on the Stew: Matt’s review was generally positive, while Patrick’s was generally negative. Put me in the glowingly positive camp, obviously.)
RPGnet: Lazily GMing a sandbox campaign
I read a lot of threads about sandbox gaming, and this was one of the most useful. It got me thinking.
Old School Encounters Reference (PDF)
This free PDF is a comprehensive reference for creating dungeon and wilderness encounters using tables. It’s the most comprehensive I’ve seen, and like most OSR stuff it’s broadly compatible with everything from the original edition up through AD&D 2e, Castle and Crusades, and all of the retro-clones.
Fantasy Name Generator
This is the best name generator I’ve ever used, hands-down, and it’s completely free. Not only does it offer the zero-effort “Push button, get names” approach you’d expect, but it offers a programmable option as well. Programmable how, you say? You can specify the number of syllables, fix certain elements (you know you want a name that starts with “Fel-” but not how you want it to end), tell it how many vowels and consonants to use, and more. It took me 15 minutes to learn the language and start using it. Seriously: This thing is amazing.
700 monster lair descriptions (PDF)
So when Frog God Games produced the Tome of Horrors Complete, a D&D monster book with over 700 critters in it, they published a Swords & Wizardry version (S&W being the retro-clone of OD&D) and a Pathfinder version. PF has long stat blocks, so they filled the gaps left behind with descriptions of every monster’s lair in the S&W version — and then compiled them all in a free PDF so PF players (and you) wouldn’t miss out.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that GROGNARDIA, Tenkar’s Tavern, Bat in the Attic, and Jeff’s Gameblog have become daily reads for me over these past few weeks. I already read Jeff’s blog, but irregularly; the others were new to me. They’re all fantastic.
In the end, I’m kind of scratching the tip of the iceberg here. I haven’t even touched on all of the great non-hexcrawl-specific products (particularly adventures) I’ve read lately, or the games you can use in place of the more expensive originals should you not have or want to track them down. Like all the best pages on Wikipedia, this one about retro-clones is a great starting point, and a rabbit hole that leads many places. I can’t possibly be comprehensive in this one article, and I’m not pretending to know as much about this stuff as many, many other folks do.
If this is all largely new to you, as it is to me, I hope you fall as hard for it as I have.
What “old school game” would you play? I started role playing right before 4e dropped and have never had any experience with OD&D, AD&D, 2e, and any other combinations of numbers and letters prior to the end of 3.5. I know of OSRIC, but haven’t been able to get one. Fantasy Craft could probably pull this off. Hell, even 4e can do dungeon crawler/monster slayer pretty well.
I’m curious if you plan to use any specific system for this and why. Also, having ran a Savage Worlds campaign last semester- I highly recommend it. Everything is simple and you can really capture the Indiana Jones feel.
Good article Martin. Maybe an overview of some of the bigger retro-clones might be in order for a future blog post?
@Razjah – I’d recommend trying out one of the old school clones. I play Labyrinth Lord mostly, but have played Swords & Wizardry White Box, Lamentations of the Flame Princess & Spellcraft & Swordplay. There are also a couple different flavors of S&W, OSRIC and a few others. LL, LotFP, S&W, and OSRIC are all available as free, “no-art” PDFs. Just do a Google search and they should show up.
@ThrashLibrarian – Thanks, I’ll check those out.
That sums up about all of my campaigns 🙂
I’ll throw out another endorsement of the Quick Primer to Oldschool Gaming, too. It’s a quick read and really gets to the essence of “old school” (whatever that means) gaming. The only system that I know well enough to DM for is AD&D 1, and I have my players read this article when they join a campaign. Most people are used to 3.5 or later, which are drastically different.
@Razjah – I would read the OSRIC v2.2 release to start with if you want to become familiar with 1e.
Regarding the primer – my review is negative based on the context in which the material was presented. The actual advice given in the primer is excellent though. I just don’t like the myth of “old school gaming” that it perpetuates (just like I do not like the myth of “indie” that was very popular about 10 years ago).
@Razjah – I’ve been slowly (and very enjoyably) narrowing down my options. By default, I’m going to use B/X D&D (Moldvay Basic, Cook Expert) or Labyrinth Lord; I love that LL is one book with optional add-ins from the AEC, and has a free version available for download, so that may win the day.
I picked B/X because it’s the purest expression of what I consider D&D that I’ve ever read, and also because it seems like the best fit for exploring this kind of game. PCs created in five minutes, no skills, strong archetypes — it’s the opposite of most modern games in a lot of ways, and that’s intriguing. I love the idea of having no skills encouraging my players to try anything they can think of, rather than seeing their abilities as limitations.
But I also have a huge nerd-chubby for ACKS and the DCC RPG, both of which I’m eagerly awaiting (ACKS hasn’t shipped yet, DCC is in preorders until 4/1). Those both have a different vibe than B/X, so I’m trying to build a setting that smoothly accommodates all three in the starting region.
The idea is that I’ll be able to try different games in different situations, but all of them (and the PCs) will coexist in the same region. B/X and ACKS are pretty closely compatible, and I don’t think compatibility will be a huge issue with the DCC RPG.
I have no idea if any of that will actually happen, but that’s the plan!
@ThrashLibrarian – I don’t know what I’d be able to add to the retro-clone overviews that are already out there, particularly without having played any of them. This one is excellent, and got me started on delving into them.
I always loved hex maps. Somehow the use of hexes makes the world seem larger to me. Like a patch of forest could have some stuff in it, but an 8-hex patch of forest could have 8x the stuff in it!
If you embark on this gaming style, Ben Robbins’s West Marches posts are essential reading:
The West Marches
There’s also Castles & Crusades.
For a modern spin, I really felt a lot of old school influence when I was involved with Dragon Age. PC design was quick and easy and the stunt system adds flair without a lot of tactical rules. The only downside is that the backgrounds (race/culture combo) are specifically written for the setting, but it isn’t difficult to make generic ones.
Great article, Martyn, and one that has me jonesing to play in a sandbox again.
Playing White Box D&D back in ’75, nothing was sweeter than grabbing some blank hex sheets and hitting the road to see what was over the next hill. Players vied with each other to produce the biggest, most inclusive maps of the world our GMs had made. Mine were Triple-A tripticket affairs, that folded nicely.
No-one lived long, though, once the wandering monsters got stuck in, and the experience progression was a geometric thing. The most experienced character in the game was 6th level!
If anyone is looking to get to grips with this sort of game, they could do worse than obtain a set of maps for Empire of the Petal Throne (available from Tekumel.com), as these maps describe a huge tract of a world already mapped.
It would be courtesy to populate it as the author intended, and the game world is a compelling one as written, but once you have the maps you can do what you want with them in your own home.
If you want to be completely faithful to the original model, you need a copy of Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival and the key printed in Wilderness Adventures (book three of the White Box set).
But that might be going a bit too far.
Oh, dammit! Another enthusiastic review from a trusted source to suck me in… Luckily, I have The Power Of The Internet to bookmark this for later.
BTW, Hexographer was glowingly reviewed by yours truly on none other than Gnome Stew. http://www.gnomestew.com/tools-for-gms/hexographer-a-review
@77IM – West Marches is an incredibly inspiring read, especially for hexcrawling. My borderlands region will be a bit more settled, though, and feature dropped-in adventure modules throughout — not quite the same tone as WM.
@Walt Ciechanowski – I like C&C and own both core books; I could see running it, and I’d certainly like to try playing it. For me, compared to B/X (LL), ACKS, and what I’ve seen of DCC RPG, C&C’s main draw is its tight resolution mechanic (the SIEGE Engine) — I love that mechanic. You could almost run an entire game using nothing else. But I find those other games more inspiring to read; they really make me want to game, whereas C&C didn’t blow my skirt up quite as high in that regard.
@Roxysteve – I can remember seeing dusty EoTPT/Tekumel stuff on the shelves at my FLGS (The Compleat Strategist in NYC) back in junior high and thinking it looked really boring compared to everything around it. If I could go back in time and kick that Martin, I would. 😉
@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I’ve updated the article to include that link. Thanks!
@Martin Ralya – I also have the first three “Arduin Grimoire” books in my collection. They really crank up the “wahoo!” in old school D&D.
@Walt Ciechanowski – I’m almost totally unfamiliar with Arduin. I know they copied “%liar” thanks to Murphy’s Rules, but that’s about it.
Thanks for the mention 🙂
Left side of my blog has link to all the free OSR games (and lots of other free RPG and resources)
My current retroclone of choice is Adventurer Conqueror King System. Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord (with the AEC to make it roughly AD&D as I played it as a kid) are other top choices.
@tenkar – Your blog is excellent, Erik — equal parts erudition and enthusiasm, and always enjoyable to read.
Funnily enough, my dad was a cop in New York in the early eighties; I grew up there. It’s too bad we’re on opposite sides of the country, because you sound like a fun guy to game with.
A few more hexcrawl-related items I find useful, mainly sourced from Zak’s D&D w/ Pornstars blog (usually SFW, but not always). It has quite a number of great random tables and generation ideas and there’s a lot of good links from the articles and comments:
a cool link from the Instaregion comments:
Just Add Pie
which is a riff on this post:
His blog also turned me on to Abulafia, which is full of RPG-related randomly generated win:
@Necrognomicon – Thank you for the links!
Okay, wow does there need to be a book expanding on the first and third link. Those are holy shit awesome.
i should take a third whack at a wilderness generator sometime. when i have enough free time. oh right, that’s never. 🙂
I’m really glad you found the Lazy GMing thread useful! After all, for me the whole point of writing that post was for the information to be used.
Of course, whether you use it as-is, as inspiration, or for information purposes is up to you, I’m glad either way.
@AsenRG – Mostly for number two, as inspiration, so far. I’ll be going back to that well as I progress, though, and it’s already led me to interesting places. Thanks for posting it!
I made a mapmaker especially for my games. You can attach notes, incons and text to hexes, create submaps, and much more.
I hope it will help some of you: http://hextml.playest.net/
Would it be possible to get a repost/rehost of the >Old School Encounters Reference (PDF) ?
Great resource all around, I use this regularly.
Just noticed today that the link for the OSER pdf is dead.
So according to the Wayback Machine, that link was broken when we posted it!
Luckily, the creator of that resource has a new website. I had to find the whole name in the Wayback and then Google it a bit, but here you go. Check the sidebar on the right: