This last weekend, I met online with some friends to do some D&D. As per. However, not all of our group were able to gather, so I placed the current storyline on hold and ran Something Else. And since Module X1, the Isle of Dread has been on my mind, I decided to run that instead.

Taken back

Call it three weeks ago, I told my pseudo-boss at the FLGS that I had looked at X1 and rejected it as a module I could ever run. So why am I running it now?

Well, the basic answer is that what I’m running is a very different scenario than what I have on Wednesdays, which is when I was going to be running it. On Wednesdays, I run games as the Slough DM, taking all sorts of new players and people who don’t fit at other tables, games that cancel, what have you. In those types of stories, I need to push forward and introduce people to the game with a “Last time, your goal was this!” and let them continue the story. With X1, it doesn’t really have that story. That may not be a bad thing, but it makes it unplayable.

Also, the presentation at a table is tricky, and doing it online made it a lot easier to physically manage.

X1: A Brief Overview of the Module

Some quick details about the Module.

  • Released in 1981
  • Packaged with the Expert Set
  • Intended to teach DMs how to run outdoor adventures.
  • Contains some new monsters, even to me nowadays
  • Not a plot, but rather a setting

Setup

I started by telling my players this would be a Hexcrawl Experiment. It’s always useful to tell players when you’re doing a full experiment. Small experiments can be done under their noses, but big ones should be announced.

Then, I wrote a briefing document. This is a basic summary of the story, and what is not allowed and how they can prepare. I missed a trick with this, as I cut out warforged so sleep and food were harder to ignore, but apparently, there is an anti-sleep warlock invocation, which I did not know about. Oh well. It wasn’t a big distraction.

My briefing document also included a new game… mechanic? I call it the chunk. It’s a 4 hour block of time that I’ve used to rebalance things. (See the Matt’s Hexcrawl Section)

I also spent a LOT LONGER THAN NECESSARY setting up my Roll20 game. This isn’t me configuring macros and such, this is doing the basic work of setting up the map with it’s overlay and its fog of war.

I’ve been telling people that I want to build my own version of Roll20. Luckily, I’m just shy of having the information needed to be dangerous enough to start pouring time into that project. If I did build it, I would make the hour I spent trying to set up the map super simple to do.

I also prepared by dumping the encounter tables into a spreadsheet and started converting monsters to 5e.

A Difference in Monsters

A lot of the monsters from this module have analogs in 5e already. Most of the dinosaurs, for example, are basically there ready to go. One problem I ran into that I wasn’t expecting was that not all of the monsters were in the 1e Monster Manual I have. I’ve had to do some scrambling to try to make it work and luckily, the party never generated a fight where I didn’t have stats. Finishing up my monster reference is going to be big to do for this week.

One thing I’ll have to figure out is the Dragons. I realize, thinking back over it, that there would be some drift in how scary monsters were. And yeah, 1e dragons are very scary, but 5e dragons have a lot more hit points, armor and attacks. It depends on the tools you use to scale things over, of course, but my DM’s eye hazards a guess that if you convert them literally, the 1e dragons are a bit weaker than their 5e counterparts.

And by 5e counterparts, I mean Young Dragons. That’s the closest they get. The Adult and Ancient forms blow 1e’s Dragons out of the water. I mean, probably. There could be a book that has dragons that are kicked up to the epic level for 1e, but I don’t know it.

This also makes me concerned that there might be more monsters that their CR might be off from what I know. Nothing looks scary, but my players are level 3 and some of these creatures spawn several dice worth, instead of just one. (which reminds me, I need to figure out XP for last session…)

Anyway, I’m a kind and benevolent GM, and I’m not interested in killing players as part of an experiment.

The Map’s the Thing

One of the big disconnects for me in running a hexcrawl is the presentation of information. I never understood how you could present the info in a way for the players to find it useful. Part of realizing this was my realization that I was the only player I knew who EVER drew maps. Now, part of that is due to the lack of Megadungeons in my player’s experiences. They encounter a room once, and don’t have to see it again. Why would you make a map for something so transitory?

I pondered this a lot until last, oh, let’s say October, when I learned about Outdoor Survival. It was a board game published in 1972. It’s not a great game, by itself, but I heard about it in conjunction with hex crawls and suddenly, the world expanded in front of me.

What is the dramatic question of hex crawls? Well, that depends on the exact nature of your story, but it’s

  • Can the players Survive?
  • Can the players Find the Thing?
  • Can the players Thrive?

The thing they could be looking for could be the dungeon (see the first half of Tomb of Annihilation) or it could be something like “The way home.” But finding the way home isn’t that great of a question, if the players don’t have context. Without context, they will head in a random direction, until they find some terrain feature that gives them a clue, then they will follow that clue until they get out.

Outdoor Survival changes the context of the question. We start with giving players plenty of information, a bird’s eye view of the terrain. This takes the onus of explaining the terrain out of the DM’s hands and onto a piece of cardboard. The players can then look and see the choices laid out in front of them. They can choose whether to stay in the forests or run across the plains. They can choose to follow the river or climb the mountains.

This context is combined with clear rules. How fast do they travel, where is there water, how easy is it to find food. Also, terrain can play a part into what creatures are triggered on the Wandering Monster Tables. The ones for Isle of Dread don’t have that level of fidelity, but ToA did. If you knew travelling the river was faster, but there was less of a chance for a Zombie T-Rex, well that is a choice that might matter.

“But,” I hear imaginary people say, “what if you’re trying to deal with people who are lost and need to navigate to the place?”

Good question, imaginary people, and simple enough to explain. You have your map, right? Well, who is to say that it has towns, roads, or any landmarks visible upon it? At least, until the players discover it. Then you can add it to the map. (Assuming you can do that on your map. Adding stickers to a 48 year old game seems premature)

This idea really changes the game, for me. First, it makes overland travel interesting. No more fast forwarding of travel time. (If traveling matters in your game. It doesn’t have to) You can also do interesting things, like having specific hexes that are in control of the Orc army as they slowly make their way towards civilized lands. You can have the party scout the shape and size of the orc army and try to return with that knowledge before it’s too late.

Second, with changes to overland travel, rangers move from being underpowered to in their element. When the party can choose Desert or Forest and the Ranger has Favored Terrain (Forest) it’s going to be a lot easier for them to travel that way. Rangers matter in this system, with very little change to their abilities. (Still, some changes need done, but a lot of them are fiddly number changes, as we’re dealing in hexes instead of miles per day.)

Third, it makes life a lot simpler in deciding when players interact with Wandering Monsters. Admittedly, I don’t have WM figured out quite yet, but it works much better rolling for the day or per hex instead  of forcing one encounter per journey.

I’ve been wanting to do this type of game for months, but the workload required to get it ready for Chaotica was huge and I wasn’t prepared to do that. I still do want to go back, especially as I learn more about how hexcrawls work.

Matt’s Hexcrawl

To make the world make more sense, I’ve changed how time works. The day is broken up into 4 hour blocks called “chunks.” There are a handful of ways to spend a chunk. Some are group activities, like travelling and resting. Others are there to fill in other options for what people can do with their time.

First, for resting, I decided to do a modification to how rests work. To gain the benefits of a Long Rest, you need to be in a place of Luxury. I’m not quite sure what qualifies, but I know camping doesn’t cut it. All you can get from spending the night while camping is a Short Rest over 8 hours.

This is an important change, as it means that a single encounter is not dominated by spell casters, who get their spells back after a rest. It also means that hit points are recovered slowly. That makes small fights more crucial, as losing hit points or spending resources.

It also naturally incentivizes the party to arrange for “Luxury” accommodations wherever they want to be around. Without me mentioning anything, they party started talking about building a base in a place that was convenient to all sorts of resources. Which was gratifying validation to this style of gameplay.

Second, Chunks provide hooks for any type of activity. Want to search an area for useful plants? Spend a chunk searching. Want to build a house? Let’s figure out how many chunks it will take, as well as the materials required. It doesn’t matter what exactly you want to do, it’ll take some chunks to accomplish, but we know how many there are in a day (6. 3 in daylight, 3 at night)

Third, It keeps things moving. It’s easy for people to get bogged down in discussion, but when you can point to the chunk ticking down, people are more willing to get a move on.

Fourth, Travel is a bit more consistent. While I like the idea of the one hex a day speed that outdoor survival intends, bringing it a step smaller means I can have this big list of things that speed up travel and bring it down. A ranger in favored terrain (forest) on a road can cover a cool 4 hexes a chunk, while the terrain lasts. If they push once, that means they could cover 12 hexes or 72 miles in 1 day.

Which is, admittedly, a lot, but having that perfect arrangement seems unlikely (or a worthy reward for the work and resources the players would have to sink into such a project).

Encounters were a bit sparse this session, so I’m going to kick it up so it is 2 rolls during the day and one at night. Just one roll extra, but satisfies the “Encounters happen less at night” that the module claims, but still has a bit more teeth in it. (also, the module has some stupid wording on that part, so being able to ignore that phrasing sounds heavenly.)

I need to examine my 1e materials and see if I can find how to determine a monster’s lair and if there’s rules for how to track it. The party might sleep better if the hill giant is dealt with.

Future Plans

Short term:

In addition to uncovering what “lairs” might mean, I think the island has a few monsters that are single items. Once they’ve been cleared, they won’t show up anymore. I think I need to make a few 5 room dungeons for some of these locations and creatures, just to have them on tap in case those battles come up. Making some tables for what sources could be found in a location might also be good, but I don’t know enough to make those believable. I guess that’s not as important as being confident. (DMing 101)

I also need to finish filling out my encounter tables and fix a few of the entries so it makes more sense. There’s a lot of items I just threw “Tribal warriors” onto, and that doesn’t fit 100. DND Next apparently had a conversion, so I should go plunder that for details.

Long Term

A lot of this experiment is to help me prepare for the Shadow Marches, a part of my Eberron Campaign that at this rate, will happen in January. But it is coming, it will be a lot of work, and I need to be thinking of it now. Especially with how to do a Monster Hunt and how travelling between villages should work. I have ideas, but I need to make sure they’ll work fine.

Even longer, when the World of Chaotica returns, it will be a hexmap. Well, multiple hex maps. I have a lot of word building to do there, and I think I might need to lean into sharing the workload with my players.

Still, this is a good, useful experiment, and I am learning a lot. Which is what experiments are all about.

Did you find this interesting? Got questions or handy hints? Leave a comment. And if you want to be alerted the next time I write on this topic, one of the more secure ways it to toss a buck a month into my hat on Patreon, where the update will not only get sent to your inbox, but quite possibly a day early! If that’s not your jam, check back Tuesdays and Fridays to see what else I’ve been cooking up.

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