Sunday, December 20, 2009

eXPloration

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
Time to die.
In addition to being one of the coolest lines ever to be uttered in a movie, Roy Batty's death speech at the end of Blade Runner speaks to me about the nature of adventurers. A good adventurer isn't just a corpse count and a treasure tally. Part of an adventurer's soul is wrapped up in the places they've been and the wonders they've beheld.

MERP and RoleMaster have this rule where you earn 1 experience point for every mile travelled. Since it takes 10,000xp to make level 2 in those systems travel isn't the most efficient way to make your sorcerer's apprentice into the next Gandalf, but you could do it. I like the idea of XP earned for visiting new and exciting places, but I'm not sure I like a flat amount per mile. Here's an alternative idea.

Get out your campaign world map (and key if you've got one). If you need don't already have a campaign world to set your fantasy adventures then I recommend starting with Points of Light and/or Points of Light II, but this method should work with any campaign setting. Okay, you've got the campaign map in front of you. Now imagine which of the places on the map are the coolest to visit. What places are breath-takingly beautiful? Which locations are desolate beyond imagination? What spots on the map have no mortals seen in generations? What places surge with magical energies or reek of unholiness?

Take your ideas and make a list of places from most awesome to least awesome. As an example, I'll give a quick look-over to the hexmap in the center of Geoffrey McKinney's mind-rending Supplement V: Carcosa. The following places strike me as particularly nifty:
  • Carcosa (the haunted city in hex 1507 from which the setting derives its name)
  • Mount Voormith'adreth (Shub-Niggurath's lair in hex 0402)
  • Crystal City of the Space Aliens (hex 0604)
  • The Shards in the Blighted Lands (hex 2303)
  • Lake Hali
  • Damned Isles
  • Thaggasoth Peaks
  • Yaglogthotep Forest
  • Icy Wastes
There's plenty of other interesting places on that hexmap. Geoffrey McKinney positively crams Carcosa full of eldritch doom. But for a small map, I think 6 to 12 places is probably sufficient. A larger Wilderlands of High Fantasy map could maybe squeeze in 20 or 30 wondrous places, while a large campaign map (like Darlene's World of Greyhawk map) could easily hold a hundred such locations.

Next think about how much you want to award pure exploration in your campaign. I find these sorts of decisions hard to make in the abstract, so here's the a line of thinking that might help: A newly minted PC decides to cross the campaign map to visit the top item on your list, how close should they be to 2nd level after such an achievement? Set aside any thought as to encounters along the way, we're talking here strictly about the effect of the experience of visiting the location. How changed will the PC be on their return from this fey place?

If I were to run Carcosa I definitely would want visiting the city of Carcosa itself to be a life-changing experience. So let's say I go overboard an establish a 2,000xp award for visiting the place. Once I have the top item set, I can eyeball the rest of the list:
  • Carcosa City: 2,000xp
  • Mount Voormith'adreth: 1,500xp
  • Crystal City: 1,000xp
  • The Shards: 500xp
  • Lake Hali: 250xp
  • Damned Isles: 200xp
  • Thaggasoth Peaks: 150xp
  • Yaglogthotep Forest: 100xp
  • Icy Wastes: 50xp
Obviously I just pulled those numbers out of my butt. If you want to keep the PCs focused on killing things and taking stuff or chasing Elminster-imposed missions, then by all means cut all those awards way the hell down. But assuming you like the idea of PCs climbing mountains just 'cause it's there then I feel you should offer XP awards comparable to standard murder and pillage.

Now, we can glam up this simple chart quite a bit with a special rule for some of the items:
  • Carcosa City: 2,000xp but must spend one night in city
  • Mount Voormith'adreth: 1,500xp for the first human to climb to the peak, 0xp thereafter
  • Crystal City: 1,000xp but must enter the Dome
  • The Shards: 500xp
  • Lake Hali: 250xp if Carcosa City is viewed in the moonlight
  • Damned Isles: 200xp for first island visited, 100xp per island thereafter
  • Thaggasoth Peaks: 150xp if mountains crossed, double if it takes two hexes to get across
  • Yaglogthotep Forest: 100xp
  • Icy Wastes: 50xp but 200xp for crossing hex 2210, "The Frigid Heart of the Wastes"
You can also do up special rules like "dwarves earn triple XP for any ocean voyage" or "followers of St. Salamander earn 1,000xp for praying at each of his Seven Shrines". And one could establish XP awards for non-location based wonders:
  • See a dragon fly overhead: 100xp but 0xp if pooped on
  • Ride a dragon: 500xp first time, half for each additional ride
  • Dance with the fairies: 300xp
  • Watch a city burn: 150xp
  • Shipwrecked: 100xp, but 0 if you sabotage the vessel
  • & etc.
Now to make this all work you need to keep in mind 2 important points. First, you have to share at least some items on this list with your player group. You can't create a feedback loop of action/encouragement if the players don't know what's going on. Hell, get them in on the ground floor. If you're using a well-known setting enterprising players will be happy to suggest ideas. Creative ones will make crap up, to the betterment of your campaign.

Second, when the players accomplish one of these goals, sell it. Break out that over-the-top poetic voice and use those fifty cent words. Have word get around, with peasants in the street whispering "There goes Lucas of the Amber Blade, he's the only man to ever cross the Shimmering Desert and return!" Most players eat that stuff up.