Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Warbox

Consider Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings interpreted as things that happened during a wilderness crawl.

The PCs can go wherever they want and do whatever they want, but they're going to have random encounters, right?

As Black Vulmea points out here, random encounters don't have to mean the story thus generated is random.

If you think of these two stories, who are the Hobbits and Lannisters randomly encountering as they try to get from here to there? Not loose bears and trolls, mostly, but other people. Forces on patrol, emanations of various political entities.

By constantly encountering all these interested parties, the opportunity to take part in the big drama is there and it forms part of the atmosphere even if what the PCs mostly do is ignore it. The events of the setting and powers in it become part of it in a way where they're not just waiting for the PCs to come near them.

Right now the campaign I'm running has a war going on, and the PC stuff happens sort of "underneath" it. The game is all between the raindrops of the war.

So this is my idea for the Warbox (or...Politicrawl?) basically: map an area and its encounters not in the classic AD&D way in terms of climate--winter wolves in the north, tigers in the plains, etc--but in terms of the distance the PCs are from the power centers.

This can work on any scale, so long as you want the PCs encounters to be mostly with intelligent species with motives.

I drew up this slightly abstracted map of my campaign's important places...
click to enlarge
The red dots represent the center of various powers relative to each other. They also represent encounters with whoever is the Big Boss of that place (exactly how is described in a second). So like the red dot at the center of Nornrik represents an encounter with the Frost Giant Queens of that city but also shows about how far that city is from Vornheim (count the squares, 30 miles each).

The dark blue is a river or sea between continents, it's not to scale.

Each concentric color around the center represents an encounter related to that power center, like so:
The boss is whoever's in charge, the lieutenants are anyone in the ruling class of that city, the soldiers are the fighting forces (duh), the citizens are a catch-all for any kind of people who live in that place and the epiphenomena are mostly just traces of that group or things it's responsible for.

Like if we're mapping epiphenomena of the Goblin Empire it might be a few mutant pigs from the goblin alchemists running free or a crashed goblin juggernaut. If we're talking about epiphenomena of a small barbarian tribe we might say it's a looted caravan or a cairn proclaiming the awesomeness of said tribe.

This is a quick list I made for Nornrik, the white elf city, though it occurs to me with only a little tweak it could apply to most of the powers on this map:
click to enlarge
Now, here's the part I like:

See where there's that block labelled 1-9?
Dead in the middle of that 1-9 block at 5--center that on wherever the PCs are at any given point.

So wherever the PCs are on the big map at the top, you draw or just imagine a little square around it with 9 blocks like that. Imagine it labelled like a phone dial.

Roll a d10 if encounters are common, d12 if they're less common, roll a d20 if they only happen about half the time.

On a result of 1-9, there's an encounter. Which encounter?

Well it says, right there on the map. In the case of the example above with the square on the upper right edge there 1-3 is no color it's a wilderness encounter, 4-6 and 9 are blue so it's an encounter with an epiphenomenon, if it's 7 or 8 that's green so it's a citizen or servant encounter, if it's above that there's no encounter.

The next day (or however often you're checking) you move the PCs one square closer to their goal, imagine the box redrawn around their current position and roll again. The encounters come right off the map.

The concentric circles don't represent where stuff actually is, they're just a handy way of charting what kind of encounters are likely where. As you get closer to the power centers, encounters with more powerful NPCs become more likely. You skirt the edges, you don't have to worry so much.

Another nice thing is this method of charting/mapping means you can place a likelihood of an encounter on the map without placing an actual encounter or writing a new chart.

Like: let's say the goblins of Gaxen Kane moved their army over to the river. You just draw a yellow line parallel to the river somewhere. Now every time the PCs are in that area, there's a 1 in 3 chance of running into the goblin army--but you didn't have to calculate percentages or add any notes or deicde their precise location, just get out a highlighter...

You could also do this:

You collapse all the  tables like this for a more mixed population.

1 Temple 
2 Wagon
3 Statue 
4 Graveyard
5 Citizen elf
6 Servant elf
7 Fighter elf
8 Ranger elf
9 Wizard elf
10 Cleric elf
11 Castle servant/aristocrat elf
12 Boss elf/Frost Giant Queen 

And so basically blue squares roll a d4 on this chart, green roll a d6 on this chart, yellow roll a d8, orange roll a d10, red roll a d12.



Roger G-S said...


And if you allow the zones to overlap - graphically, maybe, having some centers use colors for zone markers and others use black numbers - then when squares from more than one zone get into range, you can roll for both centers.

This can give you rare but cool events like goblins defacing a barbarian cairn, or actual battles and conflicts.

Finally, to allow for rarer events you can say that 10 = encounter from 2 squares away and roll d20 counting clockwise from top left to find out which (19 and 20 are false alarms).

Jens D. said...

I tried to think along those lines recently, but the way the colored squares correspond with encounters is just brilliant!

Gave me another idea, too: if the numbers 1-9 always show the hierarchy (as long as you roll just one die, it's equally propable to get any given number anyway...), the characters level could be an indicator where in the hierarchy they could most likely attract attention when active in an area (and after the first chance encounter happened to spread the word). So if a group of level 9 characters is making waves, the boss is more than inclined to do something about it (or with it), while level 4 would be something for the lower management. With levels higher than 9, the gap could be related to the distance to an area in squares needed to peek a bosses interest.

mordicai said...


...nope! Not how my brain works. I GET it but I have to like, engage some...visual Cartesian part of my brain that has lain fallow for...far too long. That said, I really find it interesting just as...abstract, non-geographic mapping; that is pretty awesome.

Jim said...

Brilliant! This is going to rattle around in my skull for some time. Thank you for sharing. I'm going to try and figure out a way to use this in my game.

Greyhawk Grognard said...

I like this a lot.

brady said...

Well, there it is. Smartest idea I've yet to come across on a D&D blog, and is immediately going into the campaign.

Doctor Checkmate said...

Does any one have any thoughts on adapting this cleverness to a hex grid?

Zak Sabbath said...

On a hexmap you'd just use a d8 instead. Each square on a grid is adjacent to 8 other squares (9 total, use a d10, the 10 is "no encounter"), each hex is equal to 6 other hexes (7 total, use a d8, an 8 is "no encounter")

Doctor Checkmate said...

Well, when you put it like that, it seems pretty obvious, doesn't it? *glances suspiciously at his glass*

Matthew Miller said...

Excellent ideas, Zak. Especially the color-coded encounter areas. But... to me, this does feel more like "Politicrawl" than "Warbox." It feels too static for war. The position of the "red spots" relative to each other would be more fluid in a war; hence, maps of wars are a spaghetti salad of colored arrows. See this map of the war between the Manchus and the Ming Dynasty. Hmm... I'll have to mull over ways to adapt your ideas to a more dynamic situation... maybe using cut-outs of your concentric encounter areas and moving them around the map like giant chits in a wargame... That way you could also get overlapping zones, like Roger the GS suggested...

Unknown said...

Respectfully, I wish to make a comment about the warbox: if I were in the middle of GMing and I were to flip to the warbox map and accompanying tables my personal GM intuition would guide me as follows:

Blue would tend to be exclusive from other colors so that if the players were in a blue area they might come across an epiphenomenon or (very likely) nothing, other than landscape.

Green, on a hit, would tend to call for an additional roll for more green, and yet another hit would indicate yet another roll.

If the die indicated no green I would have to interpret that to mean that the warbox was asleep or had swarmed out to attack another warbox etc. Once such an abandonment was determined there would be no more population rolls.

If the warbox was not abandoned and a red roll came up I would feel obliged to also then roll for each color of orange, yellow and green.

Would your intuition guide you in a similar way or have I missed the point of the application of the warbox?

Zak Sabbath said...

no idea what you're talking about

Dr. Curiosity said...

I'm tempted to adapt and implement this in a computer game at some point. Thanks for the brainworm!

scrap princess said...

Oh sweet with that new addition makes shit perfect for this table I was just writing

Scott Hadaller said...

This is great. I'm a huge fan of everything being on the map.

Rabid said...

I (think) he's saying that the closer to the centre of the power structure you get, the higher the density of accompanying forces is likely to be.

I guess it might work if you want to use the map to also generate additional properties of the encounter like force size as well but could quickly become an unwieldy mess.

Pekka said...

Okay, you added the PS. I was about to comment more extensively about how I made that ~progressive encounter table for secret gygax thing a couple of years ago.

Your bigger dice roll works too, but you could turn the distance from the centre of power into a bonus and just have one type of dice and one encounter table. IE have a table with 60 entries, roll d20, and add the "level of power" to the roll. That way you could just mark your map 'fortress +25', 'rural forest +0', or 'castle of doom +45'.

Anonymous said...

I would do this with a clear plastic cell overlay labeled for my region map, square grid drawn with fine point sharpie, cities marked with black sharpie to line them up, political zones marked in wet-erase pen.

Die size doesn't make sense for speed of travel (more checks in more time, so that's taken care of). Or PC stealth (since they should still notice an encounter even if it doesn't notice them). I'd use it for proximity to urban centers of the civilization. For example, if you're in a 30-mile square near the outskirts you can be in one of several villages or you could avoid them. d10 if you're passing through villages, d12 if going on roads but hiking to avoid villages, d20 if you're avoiding roads and villages completely.

This could be used for dungeons too, considering a 30x30 square zone as made up of 10x10 segments, each of which correspond to your 1-9. Big lairs represent power centers, and the wandering monster chart MINUS these power center creatures is your "wilderness". A lair for these purposes has to have a society complex enough to ovver the variation found in the color bands. A bunch of ghouls is just a bunch of ghouls, so they wouldn't emanate influence. They'd just be in the Wilderness chart for the level, possibly tied to a small lair with loot in the level key.

Because the dungeon probably restricts movement through it more than overland, you might want to map the power radius such that it flows through passages and so it's not a true radius. If there's a curtain of darkness or windy chasm nobody can cross, two power centers could be on either side without overlapping - here you'd have to decide whether a roll on the other side results in No Encounter, Wilderness as default, or Nearest Neigboring Square on your side.

Zak Sabbath said...

I dont understand your 2nd paragraph at all

Unknown said...

I suspected that I might have missed the point, I think it is clear now that I did exactly that.

I would like to withdraw my comment and question, please. said...

Zak, this was freaking awesome. Jeez, I look away for a couple of days and you come up with something like this. Just awesome.

Diffan said...

Great idea Zak! I especially enjoy the aspect of it working at different scales according to size, such as from something small like a large city to countries spanning hundereds of miles.

Unknown said...

This could be used for dungeons too, considering a 30x30 square zone as made up of 10x10 segments, each of which correspond to your 1-9. Big lairs represent power centers, and the wandering monster chart MINUS these power center creatures is your "wilderness". A lair for these purposes has to have a society complex enough to ovver the variation found in the color bands. A bunch of ghouls is just a bunch of ghouls, so they wouldn't emanate influence. They'd just be in the Wilderness chart for the level, possibly tied to a small lair with loot in the level key.

I like your it.

Zak Sabbath said...

True but at that point one might as well just draw a dungeon.

RFord said...

I like this concept. It could use a little refinement, but the concept itself is solid.

Zones could be larger to represent a more powerful power or one that can control more space. Flying creatures, for example, could patrol a larger area.

Zone could also overlap. This might present situations where both sides could be played off each other.

Geography other than water could shape zones. A power inhabiting a valley might follow the shape of that valley. Mountains could block off access to parts of the map.

Overall, this is an inspired idea.

MendicantMonkey said...

I think he's saying to use larger dice when the players are avoiding contract, so there is a larger chance of rolling "no encounter."

Zak Sabbath said...

You think?

richard said...

apart from anything else you've just given a really cogent description of the "overlapping spheres of influence and shared sovereignty" that SE Asian scholars are always going on about, where you have zones in between multiple empires that pay tribute to all of them or play them off against each other.
ONE DAY when I am not chasing my tail at high speed I will write up that mandala state post and this will go at the top of it. Thanks.

Takeda said...

Love it! I could go on but I just love the idea and I will shamelessly steal it.