Friday, July 31, 2020

The Point Crawl and Spatial Resolution

Introduction and the "Linear Point Crawl"

I was taking the train across town (now a few months ago, none take the train across town in these times) and looking at the transit map when I realized that they had created the most basic kind of a point crawl: a sequence of locations (stations) and vectors (the track between them) without the opportunity to change the order of those locations (you can't skip a station). I am a geographer as well as a forester, I work in the geospatial world and spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the locations of things in relation to each other. 

Many in the RPG community praise the adventure structure of a point crawl. The premise is this: the adventures take place in discrete locations (dungeons usually), while exploration occurs in the vectors between those locations (the wilderness usually).

Many of the "mainstream" RPG adventures published follow this most basic point crawl structure (as well documented by Joseph Manola in his series of Consolidating Pathfinder Adventure Paths). Just as you "finish" one location you are directed (not gently!) to the next one by plot contrivances, hence the abhorrent accusation of "rail-roading".

Lets call this form of the point crawl the "Linear Crawl". Its features are this:
  • Locations are the only places where the game "happens"
  • The order in which you visit them is constrained absolutely
The minimum requirements to run a Linear Point Crawl are: 
  • A series of adventuring locations that you have planned for players to visit
  • An order in which the adventuring locations may be visited
Of course even the most egregious example of a rail roading adventure is flexible enough to allow the adventurers to return to town between adventuring sites, an implicit allowance for non-linear travel, but only to places where adventure "don't really happen". Sometimes this hub changes during an adventure, for example the party now always returns to a big city instead of the small town they started in.

The travel between locations is often hand waved (after all adventure doesn't happen there), but some times these published adventures use a technique to mask the linear nature of their adventures:  wilderness encounters (see D&D 5e's Tomb of Annihilation). These wilderness encounters occur between locations, and sometimes are even supported by random encounter tables. These help the adventure feel like it has the opportunity for exploration with a non-linear structure, but this is an illusion. This style of wilderness "exploration" rarely gives the players any real autonomy to explore beyond the encounter, it functions as a way to tax the character's resources while they travel and as content filler.

An example of a Linear Point Crawl style adventure.

The "Multi-Path Point Crawl"

The next order of complexity up is what I would describe as the "Multi-Path Point Crawl". This is where locations are connected in a more complex way, with the opportunity for multiple vectors leading to or from a single location. This means that locations are still the primary focus, but not all locations have to be visited and the order that they are visited in can be influenced by the player, though there may still be constraints (like time, more on that later). To use the train map analogy, this train system has multiple lines who share some common stations, riders can choose from several routes to get to their destination.

Many adventures have an in built time constraint: an impending orcish invasion, a lich gathering strength and corpses for an undead army, the king is dying and needs a drink from the fountain of virility, etc. With this structure, adventurers are incentivized to move quickly and efficiently twords their goal, meaning that choosing the correct path/destination has consequences and that they will not get the opportunity to visit every location or travel every vector. This structure is common in a more narrative style of play, generally not the style of play so well described and explored in these articles by Ben L: Pleasures of the OSR Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Sandbox style play does not rely on these drivers, it has many other conflicts and motviations.

An excellent example of this tension comes to us from the Fellowship of the Ring, where the Fellowship tries and fails to cross through the Redhorn Pass and has to turn back and travel through the Mines of Moria (also an interesting example of wilderness like exploration and travel through a dungeon like environment). They had three choices as laid out in the book: travel south and pass near to Saruman's tower (dismissed out of hand), to travel though the Mines of Moria (a dwarf stronghold gone strangely silent in recent years, Gandalf resists this option) or travel over the Rehorn Pass (a perilous journey but preferable to the Mines). Tension is achieved by the slowing of their important journey and their choices having consequences.

To summarize: the multi-path point crawl still places and emphasis on the locations visited, but the order those locations are visited (if at all) are removed or relaxed. In a multi-path crawl you need:
  • A set of adventuring locations that players may visit
  • A set of travel vectors between those locations
  • Information provided to the play on the consequences for those deciding which path to take or local to visit (for example they might get more treasure for traveling through the Wight Wastes to the Mound of Misery as opposed to the easier travel along the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City)
An example of a Multi-Path Point Crawl adventure structure. If you can find a way to activate the Standing Stones you can skip the Keep of the Meta-Fungi altogether (an avoid the mind altering spores!)

The Hex Crawl and the "Spatially Relevant Plane Crawl"

The level of resolution that I am currently enamored with is what I will call the "Spatially Relevant Plane Crawl", the logical extreme in complexity of a Hex Crawl.

The problem: The highest level of spatial resolution possible is a to-scale map where every point on the map is in a sense a location.  This is the resolution that we are trying to simulate with the Spatially Relevant Plane Crawl, we want players to feel as if they can point to any point on a map and say that is where they want to visit. Of course planning a to-scale map would take a prohibitively long time and take up a large amount of space. Because we have limited time, space, and creative juice we should not attempt to create a to-scale representation of the play world. These valuable resources are better spent on things that players will actually interact with. The goal of this approach is to simulate the experience of a to-scale map. So how do we do this?

A common approach is to use a Hex Map, a map with a grid of hexagons projected onto it, often with a series of rules of thumbs for the correct amount of content for each hex: a monster lair, the dominant ecosystem, some hidden locations, etc. Often these maps may not even have hexes projected onto more detailed maps, but instead have some visual shorthand for the content of a hex:

This is... fine. It uses a few basic topographic/ecological features to indicate the content of a hex (forest, hilly forest, marsh, grass land, hills, mountains, water, etc). There are usually accompanied by a keyed table telling you what you can find in each hex.

While the above map is perfectly serviceable, it is not especially compelling aesthetically nor does it have the little bits of weird detail that real world maps have or the fun landmarks and style of the best fantasy maps. It also restricts/abstracts choices into which of the adjacent hexes the party wants to venture to next, leaving little room to study the terrain between the players and their destination.

A nice solution that appeases my aesthetic sensibilities is to simply project a hex grid onto an existing/generated map. It removed the clunky and harsh divisions between hexes, and allows the topography to tell more of the story. Getting the grid to match perfectly to labels/features can be a bit clunky and doesn't solve the problem of abstracting choices into which hex to travel into next, so lets discard the hex grid entirely.

Using/drawing/generating a good map can help you create challenges and interesting choices for your players. The features I look for in a "good" map are these:
  • Topography is indicated, preferably with actual topographic lines, but maps with a hillshade effect give a good idea of topography as well
  • A reasonable scale. Do you really expect your players to walk from New York to San Francisco? If not, then you probably don't need a map at that scale. I find that getting an idea of what a reasonable scale can be a little hard, think of hikes/runs/bike rides you've been on, how long did it take you to travel that far? Could you keep up that pace over many days? There is no need to plan a map in detail where most of it's content will never be seen (an argument for localism and a discussion of long distances/time).
  • Some idea of the dominant ecosystem (as you know I like to build systems around ecosystems), this will help fill wilderness travel content. This can be represented in a choropleth map with color codes for land cover.
Using the above basic requirements as a guide I generally like to enrich my map with the following:
  • Place settlements and the paths/highways between them
  • Place adventuring locations (ruins/keeps/monster lairs/etc)
  • Name some major wilderness areas and think about their major features/gimmicks

With a good map with the above elements, I feel like I have what I want to run an adventure. I can build random encounters/locations for the wilderness areas (see an approach to this here) and flesh out dungeons and settlements as usual.

So when my players look at their map and point to some far and whimsically named place beyond the mountains and say they want to visit there next I can nod and say "Great, go ahead and roll the first wilderness encounter as you make your way into the foothills bellow the Unpathable Peaks..."

1 comment:

  1. It seems there’s a deciding relationship between the GM and the map, and also between the players and the map. Clearly the GM needs to have access to the map, but do the players benefit from their own access?

    For a point crawl game, clearly the map serves the GM much more than the players. As inspiration for each leg of the journey’s Obligatory Single Encounter™️, and as inspiration for whatever descriptive fluff they tack on to the five minute of travel montage between points. Here, seeing the map is a hindrance to the players—letting them think they have utter control of their path, and at worst forcing the GM to either railroad, or improvise whole cloth the interstitial material. I’d go as far as to say neither GM nor player need more than a list of locations to run a satisfying point crawl (as you described it). If the whole group buys into this style of game, the map can get in the way.

    I haven’t yet run more than a handful of sessions of free form hex crawling (or plane crawling), so this is all coming out of my ass now: I think the true value of the keyed hex crawl shines in open table games, like Justin Alexander preaches about. ( The ideal is a fully fleshed out scenario in each hex, so the GM has minimal work to prepare a satisfying game in every direction. The single terrain feature in each hex is an unnecessary shortcut, and I don’t see why a hex overlay over a true to-scale map would be a problem (other than the minor annoyance of matching cool terrain features to the center of the hexes). On the other hand, having uniformly sized hexes also seems like an unnecessary standard. Why split a river featur into 3 hexes, when a single long shape would keep you from having to write two extra scenarios?
    In the plane crawl case, I see a huge benefit in sharing a de-annotated version of the area map with the players, specifically so they can engage with the full landscape in a way that’s hard to simulate otherwise.

    Sorry for the rambling—I think I have enough to think about that maybe I’ll just write a full response!