June 28, 2011

Farstead Part One: A 4E Hexcrawl

Welcome to Farstead. This is the name of my hexcrawl campaign for 4E. I’ll be posting how I wrote up this campaign with the intent of maybe giving someone else some ideas they can use. It will be a series of articles over the next few weeks.

The Start
This campaign came about as my wife’s Gamma World (she ran an awesome serious version using the 3rd edition rules-science over fantasy) was wrapping up. The players were asking for a fantasy game as the next campaign. This meant it fell to me, as my wife is only comfortable with two systems (Gamma World and 7th Sea).

Now the players at that game are long time players with 20+ years each. However, they are always willing to try new things and are not mired in any specific system. I had been running another 4E campaign for some time at that point. That campaign was heavily story based. I decided to run a completely different 4E campaign for them. I knew they liked using tactics in a fight and that they liked combat over other options. I felt 4E was a good fit for that group of players. It also provided a set of rules that, at its core, is the same as the D&D they already knew, while at the same time allowing for a new system they could explore (in addition to exploring the game world I was going to write from scratch).

I decided to go with a hexcrawl. I had seen some blogs discussing the concept of handing the players a blank map with one wilderness hex filled in and then telling the players to fill in the rest of the map. I fell in love with the idea.

What is my definition of a hexcrawl? It is a wilderness exploration of the unknown. This is done one hex at a time. It makes this a sandbox in effect, in that there is no impetus on the characters to do anything story-wise. Where they go and what they do is completely up to them. The only task is to explore. Unlike a true sandbox I am giving the group a goal; that of exploring the region. I am not comfortable with a true sandbox where the players are essentially directionless. I am giving a base goal, but how and when the players accomplish it is completely up to them; ie it will not interfere with their free-will, but at the same time will give them some direction when they have none of their own.

For this I decided to provide a continent that is unexplored. In 4E, starting characters are already “powerful”. They are not farmers starting their way on the path of adventure. They already have adventurer skills. So I provided a new, recently discovered continent and the characters are tasked with exploring it. There is a new settlement there, called Farstead, and that is the starting location of the campaign.

The characters are actually from an established and large kingdom. This kingdom allows for a wide range of races and classes. I had decided to allow for all 4E source material to be used, which at that point went up to PH2. So, while the characters could be created from a wide variety of options, none of that would matter after character creation. There would be no kingdoms of Dragonborn, no need to add a spot for the Tieflings, etc. I had a blank slate available for the creation of the continent.

Setting Backdrop
While I strongly want this campaign to be player driven, I still want to add in some story elements. I do not want the story to drive the players but rather to be a backdrop. After all, the world is not a vacuum waiting for the characters to kick in the door.

I decided that the continent was the site of an ancient war between the forces of chaos and a civilization of naga/yaun-ti. That war ended long ago with the “snakemen” withdrawing and chaos going into a slumber. This allows me to have an excuse to have lots of ruins for the players to explore. Also, I can reintroduce both of these forces later in the campaign when the characters start hitting Paragon and Epic tiers. The snakemen are in the process of trying to re-explore/retake their lost lands and chaos will be inadvertently woken by the player’s exploration.

Having decided on my “end-game” I also wanted to do something unique. All too often fantasy follows the usual tropes of heroes vs. orcs. In an effort of making this continent feel unique I decided to forgo the typical orcs. In fact, I decided to not use any of the PC races. The continent would be populated by a race of intelligent apes that had at one point been the slaves of the snakemen and had gained their freedom when the snakemen retreated. These would essentially be “orcs” but with a reskinning for flavor and feel.

This also allowed me to reduce the resources of the characters. The “common” language on this continent is different than where they came from. There would be no easy form of communication, at least not at the start. Eventually the characters would be able to learn the native languages (through translations of ancient documents, trying to communicate with the natives and the expenditure of a Feat) but until then it would be interesting. In fact, Farstead itself is severely limited in its resources since it is only a newly formed colony. There are no weapon smiths, armorers, magic item stores, etc; at least, not for a while. These limited resources will provide a unique challenge for the players and provide a sense of accomplishment as they begin to gather these resources throughout the campaign.

Having determined the start and backdrop of the setting my next task was to start on the hex designs of the region. That will be next week's article. Tomorrow I will share the letter I sent to the players before the campaign started. The day after I will post the Adventurer's Charter the group has.


Sully said...

Very cool! I have also been contemplating a hex-crawl for 4e, but in a different direction than you're going. Can't wait to see more of what you're putting together!

Victor Von Dave said...

I like it. I've never ran a real wilderness exploration campaign before, but I'm fascinated by the idea. Like you, while I enjoy sandbox elements, I'm wary of a true hardcore sandbox. I'm excited to see how this works out.