Wednesday, August 29, 2007

more Wilderlands musings

A couple weeks ago I blogged about how I was considering buying the Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set. I've decided to give the Wilderlands a pass. It looks awesome and I certainly wouldn't mind being a player in that setting, but it's not what I want to run. One of the reasons I decided that my unbelievably successful Wild Times campaign would be my last Greyhawk outing was because I felt I no longer needed to play in someone else's setting. Substituting Bob Bledsaw and crew for Gary Gygax and friends wasn't what I had in mind when I burned my Darlene maps. (Just kidding. I'm not that crazy. But I have considered selling all my Greyhawk stuff except my copy of Supplement I.)

But thoroughly investigating the Wilderlands has been extremely helpful, because the methods used to make that sandbox work are well worth imitation. Devin Parker said this in a comment on my earlier Wilderlands post:
I'm a huge cheapskate, so I always come back to the advice that Brian Gleichman gave on RPGnet many moons ago: look at the product you're salivating over, list the things you think are cool about it or imagine it contains, and then make your own version based on your perceptions of the product. Sure, you may miss out on some surprises, but you also don't get disappointed, and you save cash.
I think that's some pretty damn good advice. Which is not surprising, as Gleichman is one of the smartest cats I've met in the world of online RPG discourse. The biggest thing that caught my eye about the Wilderlands was the simple combination of a numbered hexmap and a key full of brief, punchy encounters. If the PCs happen to wander into hex 0312 or whatever, here in a nutshell is the adventure they can have. Many moons ago we did something like this in my Bandit Kingdoms campaign. The memory of exploring those little 1-mile hexes of the Bandit Kingdoms still sticks in my friend Pat's memory as a highlight of an overall pretty good campaign. (For my own part, I still fondly recall the time those pechs petrified his PC and he had to play his henchmen scrambling to get their stony boss out of the Dungeon of Doom. As a DM I live for moments like that, where the PCs plans all hilariously go to crap. But I'm getting off topic here.)

So I found that the good folks at Noble Knight Games would sell me some old Judges Guild numbered hexmaps and those babies are on the way to me as I type this. It's clear to me now that one of the reasons my poster-sized Wild Coast map and my recent Beyond Vinland map and my Brythunian Age map (Wow, anyone remember that project?) weren't working as I wanted was because the hexes weren't numbered for easy keying of encounters. I wouldn't have realized that was the problem without the Wilderlands.

This simple discovery, that I needed a numbered hexmap, has caused me to really dig into the Old Books once again. This time, I'm pouring over the Little Beige Books and the First Fantasy Campaign and the 1st edition DMG and my Arduin books and such looking for procedural advice. How did the old guys structure their campaigns, and how can that inform my play? I don't want to run Greyhawk or Blackmoor or Arduin or the Wilderlands, I want to use their methods to develop my own material. Just the same way that Ron Edwards, in Sorcerer & Sword, argues that we should stop running S&S games in Hyboria and instead look at how and why Howard constructed his world as a way of informing our own world-building.

The final piece of advice I can glean from the Wilderlands is to not be overly system-focused. Although the most recent incarnation of the Wilderlands is ostensibly a 3.5 product, you can use a crapload of the stuff in the Wilderlands for nearly any version of D&D, as well as many other systems. I want that. I want a campaign world where if I choose to once again run a campaign under an older version of D&D, it won't be much trouble for me. Or if I want to run some non-canonical MERP or something like that. And I really want to be able to use much of this same setting stuff for Encounter Critical. Will that mean Damnation Vans and Robodroid Warlocks in the same setting as clerics and beholders? You bet your ass it does.

More on this topic as my thoughts percolate more.


  1. Anonymous10:39 AM

    That's a brain-meltingly good idea. I've been in a similar boat - I've wanted to use Wilderlands, but I'm not crazy about playing in someone else's setting.

    - Mearls

  2. I make a lot of use of numbered hexmaps, too (although, in the roll-your-own spirit of this post, I just print 'em up here).

    As your own post demonstrates, there really is no either/or when it comes to homebrew "versus" prepared setting choices. Every campaign set in a prepared setting homebrews, augments and alters it to some degree, from the instant the PCs are created ... and every homebrew campaign includes elements and techniques from commercial RPG and/or property-licensed and/or historical settings.

    The only real division is player expectations (and how real it is depends on player chemistry and personality). There are groups I'd never, ever GM in the Star Trek universe for, for example ... but there are groups I love GMing Trek for, and I'll always be a Trek GM when those groups come knocking. There are similarly groups I'd never run Hyboria or Greyhawk or Faerun or the Imperium or the 'Verse or the Marvel Universe for ... but there are groups where those worlds come alive for us and become our own (and certainly in ways their originators never would have seen coming). And of course, I run a lot of games with my own settings. I'm here for the whole feast :)

    It's all a matter of degree and group taste. And (to once again casually contradict the either/or pick-a-team mentality of Ron Edwards) there is no "should" when it comes to setting choices on that vast spectrum, except the basic one: we should game the way we and our players enjoy gaming.

  3. oh man I wish I knew you were going to order those numbered hex maps.


    Well the Judges Guild Wilderness Maps have an alignment problem when you trying to overlap them west to east and vice versa. Because of the even number of columns your maps will staircase down the further each you go.

    I made a PDF version that has 53 columns that overlaps nicely without the staircasing.

    PM me at the therpgsite or the necromancer boards with an email address and I will be glad to send a full size PDF that you can use at OfficeMax or Staples.

    Plus I can share some advice on how divide a world so that the individual maps fit together.

    I had some recent experience with this as I am in the process of taking my Majestic Wilderlands campaign and recreating it in a form that I can publish.

  4. Thanks for the concern, but I think I'll be okay. I don't plan to set the maps side-by-side the way the maps in the Wilderlands are arranged 3 x 6 or whatever. Instead I was considering a telescoping arrangement, where one map is, say 5 miles a hex, and it is a small rectangle on a larger 30 mile per hex map. So you can zoom into the core campaign area or zoom out for worldspanning adventures.

    Also, I dig the color and texture of the old JG maps. Very evocative.

  5. You can't beat the parchment pebble paper. Now only if I can find some plain stock of that paper so I can run it through a printer.

  6. Anonymous1:46 AM

    Jeff, I am in support of your idea, and have actually been doing something like it. My Fomalhaut campaign is basically something that came out from discussions and thinking about what makes the WL go, plus the campaign hexagon system.

    Here are two practical comments:
    1) Even though I used quarter-sized maps (so four of mine would make up a regular WL one), it is not at all easy to fill them with the "brief but evocative" encounters. I usually only work on areas the PCs may be able to visit in the span of a few sessions.
    2) This is actually not much of a problem, esp. with a good random encounter system
    3) Seas! You need seas, and lots of it! Also, islands.

    Finally, player maps to two regions, because I like to show off: